Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1900-1984: Alice Neel, American

Alice Neel is one of the great American portrait painters of the 20th century, and the unusual thing about her career is that she achieved this despite having a tumultuous romantic life and raising two sons as a single mother.
A lot of information about her career is available because her grandson made a documentary called Alice Neel in 2007. Her father was an accountant; she was the fourth of five children; they lived in a small town near Philadelphia. Although she has said she knew she would be an artist or writer from an early age, after high school she enrolled in a business course, and then took a clerical position, in order to help support her parents. Her first art training was in evening classes, but after three years, she enrolled full time at a Philadelphia art school.
When she was 25, Alice married a Cuban painter from a wealthy family and moved to Havana, a dramatic change from her previous diligent way of life. After a daughter was born the following year, the couple moved to New York City, but the baby died before she was a year old. Alice soon bore another daughter, but when she was still a toddler, Alice’s husband returned to Cuba and took the baby with him, causing Alice to suffer a nervous breakdown and attempt suicide.
She was 33 when she settled in New York and resumed painting. She was making some progress when she got involved with a Puerto Rican nightclub singer named Jose Santiago and moved to Spanish Harlem, a decision some called “artistic suicide,” because it removed her from the art scene. She bore a son at the age of 39, but Jose left her the following year. At the age of 41 she had another son out of wedlock with a Communist intellectual. In the documentary, one of her sons complains that her Bohemian way of life caused him insecurity and psychic pain, and the movie shows their cramped living quarters.

Alice’s work got very little attention during the 1940s and 1950s when the boys were growing up. In the 1960s, in a deliberate move to garner recognition, she moved to the Upper West Side, a more genteel section of Manhattan, and began requesting art world figures to sit for her.
It wasn’t until Neel was in her mid-seventies that she gained the recognition she deserved. And it is no wonder: some of her portraits are painful, some shocking, some erotic; all are truthful and brilliant. As the feminist movement stimulated interest in women artists, and after she had settled into old age, when everyone could laugh off her Bohemianism and Communist sympathies, first artists, then critics, and finally the art world in general began to recognize her greatness.

My photos of Alice's work:

Untitled (Sad Clown), c. 1930
San Diego / Jan's photo, 2017

Kenneth Fearing, 1935
MOMA / Jan's photo
Kenneth Fearing was a well-known proletarian poet of the 1930s. This painting employs a number of biographical symbols. Later, Alice quit adding elements and showed only the sitter.

This is a rare example of a portrait of an imagined character, as opposed to an actual person.

Pat Whalen, 1935
Whitney / Jan's photo

Portrait of Mildred Myers Oldden, 1937
San Diego / Jan's photo, 2017

Portrait of Richard Bagley, 1946
Metropolitan / Jan's photo

Rose Fried's Nephew, 1963
Wadsworth / Jan's photo

Julie and Aristotle, 1967
Worcester / Jan's photo

Stephen Brown, 1973
Denver / Jan's photo

The Arab, 1976
Cantor / Jan's photo

Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian, 1978
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

Richard Lang, 1978
Seattle / Jan's photo, 2017

Dan's photos of Alice's work:

TB Harlem, 1940
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Frank O'Hara, 1960
National Portrait Gallery
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Linus Pauling, 1969
National Portrait Gallery
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Photo by Dan L. Smith

Photo by Dan L. Smith

Portrait of John Bauer, 1974
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Self-portrait, 1980
National Portrait Gallery
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006