Alice Neel images and biography
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Alice Neel
(1900-1984)

See also: Women Artists

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"...Neel had labored in near-obscurity for more than two decades. She had exhibited only occasionally and was visible in her work solely by implication, through images of her friends, neighbors, and family. This now seemed inadequate. The writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges observed that a book is merely a physical object, not an aesthetic act; the aesthetic act occurs only in the encounter with its maker or with a reader. The same can be said of a painting, and for a long time Neel had settled for half the equation. She had sustained herself by making, and making again, and again, until she had a house overflowing with paintings. Her perseverance was as unquestioning as it was unrewarded. But at the end of the 1950s Neel acquired the confidence, or impatience, to pursue the encounter with a viewer.

"The period from 1959 to 1962, the year Neel moved across Central Park from 21 East 108th Street to 300 West 107th Street, marks a time of regeneration. The "before" and "after" are conjoined in an article that the critic Hubert Crehan wrote for Art News in 1962. It was entitled "Introducing the Portraits of Alice Neel," with no nod to the irony of "introducing" an artist who had been painting for forty years. The "before" is seen in the article's image of Neel, a photograph taken by Sam Brody in 1944 that shows her sitting listlessly with folded hands, surrounded by stacks of paintings that almost edge her out of the shot. There is far more life in the portraits, arranged willy-nilly like junk in an attic, than there is in Neel's unsmiling self. But the photograph was long outdated; by 1962 Neel's life had changed. Crehan, in his spirited defense, calls Neel's work revelatory and risk-taking and exalts her willingness "to paint portraits as works of art during a time when this genre is widely suspected of not being art at all.." His words joined those of others who soon began to sing her praises in several pieces that appeared in art magazines, accompanying a spate of exhibitions at galleries in New York and elsewhere. A rich constellation of circumstances that included the dawning of the wornen's movement and the art world's rekindled interest in representation and the human figure focused the spotlight on Neel and her work.

"How did Neel choose to introduce herself? The self-portrait remained anathema. But if one reads Neel's presence indirectly through her identification with her subjects, a new self-perception is apparent. At the end of the 1950s Neel began to paint portraits of people in New York's art world. She began by inviting the poet Frank O'Hara, also a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, to pose for her early in 1960. An invitation that might seem to be merely a careerist ploy also can be viewed positively as a genuine search by Neel for kindred spirits: the artists, critics, and dealers she met at galleries and parties downtown. By 1960 Neel had turned for subjects to people who were making for themselves the kind of life she wanted. She used her paintings' power as mirrors to offer herself a new reflection.

"At this time Neel also became visible in her paintings through a newly energized pictorial style. The paintings from this period of reawakening are physically thrilling to look at. Neel poured into them her own agitation, her own excitement at a turning point. The lines are fluid and lively, swooping, drooping, darting, and curling across the canvas. Neel never had liked to use fleshcolored paint and had freely described figures and backgrounds with vivid hues. Colors were now mixed in newly intense combinations, at the same time as raw patches of pinks, purples, mustards, and grays defined areas of faces and hands. The palette of Robert Smithson, painted in 1962 when the subject was still a young painter, is exceptionally beautiful, juxtaposing the dark purply tones of his suit with the pinks and reds of his damaged skin. Long, messy brushstrokes crowd the surface of Neel's canvases, conspicuously representing the work of the artist's arm, and by extension herself, in the painting. Her paintings became physically larger, growing about fifty percent to a median size of three by two feet. Neel's signature remained as it had always been, inscribed at a diagonal and underlined in a lower corner of the canvas, but now it was painted in big, bold letters that became an active part of the composition.

"No longer as openly outrageous in content as Neel's portraits of the 1930s, the 1960s paintings find their audacity in the dramatic activation of the canvas. Yet the element of eros often makes a sly return. In Neel's portrait of the art dealer Ellie Poindexter, 1962, the automobiles seen through the window form a priapic chorus around Poindexter's two enormous breasts. Like many of Neel's portraits from this period, this painting is a second effort, made from memory following a formal sitting that had produced a more conservative painting. It is as if, the second time around, Neel was able to shed the sense of decorum that her sitters brought with them.

"The turbulence of the work of the early sixties ripened into what would become Neel's signature style for the rest of her life. A Neel portrait from the late sixties through early eighties usually incorporates most, if not all, of a figure's body and head on a large canvas generally ranging from four to seven feet tall. The image is bright and well lit owing to the large north-facing windows in Neel's living-room studio. The figure is described by a strong contour line that is painted in thinned black or blue oil. With the eye of a caricaturist, Neel zooms in on a person's physical imperfections: the wrinkles of a forehead, the double chin, the big ears. Hands especially are the focus of Neel's characterizations, as they have been for portraitists through the ages, establishing rhyming connections between figures (Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973) and revealing emotions or traits that the face might not (Ellen Johnson, 1976). A strong vein of humor runs through the portraits, as Neel cheerfully ignores any worries the sitter might have about looking too lumpy or too crooked. Neel was very flexible about how empty or full a canvas needed to be to do its job. A painting as wonderful as the portrait Ginny in a Striped Shirt, 1969, isolates the sitter on a barely painted background, while The Soyer Brothers, 1973, enfolds the two men in a field full of furniture, floor, wall, and shadows..."

- By Ann Temkin, in "Alice Neel"

Further reading on Alice Neel:

  Alice Neel Images
   
1927-28 After the Death of the Child
1946 Young Woman
1959 Religious Girl
1961 Sunset, Riverside Drive
1965 Hartley
1967 Nancy and Olivia
1970 Andy Warhol
1973 Linda Nochlin and Daisy
1973 The Soyer Brothers
1975 Nancy and the Rubber Plant
1977 Faith Ringgold
1978 Margaret Evans Pregnant
1980 Self-Portrait




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