Alice Neel: Late Portraits and Still Lifes
(Radius Books, 2012)
David Zwirner Gallery recently gave the late figurative painter Alice Neel prime real estate in its prominent Chelsea locale, also releasing an accompanying exhibition catalogue by Radius Books. Alice Neel: Late Portraits and Still Lifes, which marked the second time Zwirner exhibited her work since taking over representation of her estate in 2009, gives a glimpse into the last two decades of Neel’s life as a working artist in New York, from 1964 to 1983. Neel’s intimate portraits of her friends and family become a painted diary, documenting what it was like to be a part of her immediate milieu.
Neel painted her subjects with a kind of fractured dynamic realism that journeys far beyond the surface. Nothing is hidden or embellished by the artist, who referred to herself as “the collector of souls.” She painted her way through the Depression, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and second-wave feminism, recording many varied characters from political leaders to former prostitutes to her own children. As Marlene Dumas once said, “She painted people.”
The catalogue includes 18 full-color plates of the paintings in the exhibition, with text by Louise Sørensen and Tim Griffin. Neel’s reflective study “Nancy, 1978,” of her reclining daughter-in-law, caught my eye with its bold, almost Yves Klein-esque blue outlines. Contrasting shapes, angles, and lines interweave, creating and balancing tension. Contrasting interplays between gestural, abstracted marks and classically realized form give the painting an eerie feel, as Nancy stares expressionlessly at us from her repose.
Linearity is a foremost feature in Neel’s portrait of Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks and his then partner, Brian Buczak. There is humor and tenderness to this portrait of the couple, whom Neel painted sitting at her kitchen table, outlined in bright blue and positioned behind a suggestive still life of bananas curling around a lush green avocado. Neel’s interplay of flatness and depth is herein most evident in the way she reduces Hendrick’s left hand to a purely abstract shape, while his right hand is strongly delineated.
These works exemplify the most activating elements of her work from these decades. During the ’60s, Neel’s paintings started developing bold marks, a brighter palette, and a more confident use of line. These formal elements emerge as defining stylistic characteristics of her later works. (Meanwhile, her increasingly rebellious status became solidified through such countercultural actions as her open support for the Communist Party USA and her unswayed love for figurative art during the height of Abstract Expressionism.) Areas of unmarked space breathe and frame her figures. Almost all of the portraits in the catalogue contain central compositions, a choice that can limit visual engagement if backgrounds are not considered with the same weight and intention as the centered focal point, but Neel skirts this by creating rhythms and patterns with her economic use of negative and positive space, drawing our eyes through and around her images. Precisely rendered anatomical features and cropped limbs sit against and inside half-realized spatial environments. These juxtapositions combine with moments of linearity and flat space, revealing the artistic freedoms and formal liberties Neel allowed herself within her canvases.
But Neel criticism on the whole tends to be light on both formal and biographical analysis. Her paintings are dissected in relation to a restricted view of her work that is often tied glibly to the trajectory of her personal life, the events of which do indeed read undeniably dramatically. The death of her first child, a failed marriage, and her separation from her second husband and daughter led to breakdowns, suicide attempts, and hospitalization. While these events should be considered, it’s also necessary to take into account the effects of the social and political times Neel existed in when reading her works.
In his introductory essay, Griffin beckons us to reconsider and reexamine the context in which we, as readers and viewers, receive the artist and her work. Griffin’s essay is titled “A Scene of Her Selves,” a reference to a phrase from Frank O’Hara’s poem “In Memory of My Feelings”—“scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses”—which describes how closely linked our honest artistic portrayals are with our performed veneers. (O’Hara was an occasional Neel subject.)
Griffin posits that, by engaging with the genre of portraiture, Neel showed her desire to record and capture the individuals of her life and times, to be more than merely a painterly psychiatrist of sorts. Psychological readings of her subjects, limited to the projection of our limited view of her personal history, constrain our reception of this woman and her work. A more holistic read is in order, and Griffin rightly aims to anchor in the importance of a deeper read of both the artist’s life and the art itself.
We need to focus as much on what the formal elements of the paintings are telling us as we do the biographical elements. (For example: by virtue of the sheer quantity of her output, an overall seriality emerges from her work.) While Neel surely strove to capture the zeitgeist, her contributions are equally remarkable for the cohesion and sophistication of their formal sensibilities. It is my hope that we acknowledge that we haven’t yet quite wrapped our heads around Neel’s oeuvre.