In an effort to escape the fug I’ve been swallowed into lately, I made good on a promise to myself for an “art day” this Saturday.
Good thing I caught Alice Neel’s Women at the National Museum of Women in the Arts today because this magnificent show is closing tomorrow. Yikes, I’ve been lost – Alice Neel has been one of my longtime favourite artists and , in a better state of mind, I would have been there opening day!
Alice Neel’s career spanned from the 30’s through the eighties; the artist received WPA funding in the day (although she was at odds with the administrators at times) and continued to develop her singular style through the seventies (when the feminists descended upon her like harpies in carnivorous attempts to elevate and politicize her place in art history. One can tell by the garish portraits she produced at commission of her patrons during this period).
In spirit, Neel, despite her zeitgeist participation in the major movements and figures of the post-war art world, was essentially a purist: while she amazingly brought to vivid glory, and with an impressive honesty and apt psychological insight, the ever-changing perceptions of feminity, motherhood, race, class, and family in the modern world through her work, the artist was essentially a master painter foremost and a wonderful friend and mother on top of that. Neel’s work is unflinching and telling and absolutely beautiful through all her periods.
I’ll never forgot the (written) portrait of Alice Neel by Joseph Mitchell, which first appeared in The New Yorker, introduced to me by my grandmother – who, by the way shared similar convictions with and was of the same generation, as Neel. Susan Sarandon played her in the well-intentioned but flat film, Joe Gould’s Secret.
Alice Neel is mostly known for her candid and often unflattering nude paintings of her subjects – including herself in a penultimate and honest and jarring self-portrait. This eccentric and iconoclastic take actually does a bit of a disservice to her textured and fascinating life, talent, and legacy as an artist. Neel's early work is pregnant with a virtuosity of intuitive and studied painterly technique and psychological expression and the artist carried this on through a most brilliant body of work. The majority of her subjects were women - many artist and art professional cotemporaries- whom I doubt would be drawn out more vividly by a male artist.
In Alice Neel’s later career, subjects, both men and women, were asked – though not exclusively – to pose in the raw. Her male subject’s reticence and modesty is generally quite telling through the artist’s unflinching eye and brush; in contrats her female models seem quite open to the exprience. Neel was quite forthright throughout out her career to acknowledge the (male) artistic beautification of the female form and quite a few of her paintings included in this collection reference directly renaissance masters and the machismo of the surrealist and cubists and the abstract expressionists. Neel turned the male-dominated arena on its head though - it’s the ladies who shine in her groundbreaking work, in all their empowering glory!
The Feminist movement – and of course this was essential at the time – latched on to Neel for her prodigious and amazing body of work and also her predilection for models of a certain condition and unconventional beauty. One senses Neal was bemused at most by this politcizing of a struggle she'd already lived through. Having raised ssuccesfully several children as a single mother- and artist - and enjoying grandchildren, Neel is unrestained in her ability to capture and demystify the odyssey of the expectant and blossoming mother and her own aging. These paintings are sublime!
Neel’s wonderful sense of composition and pattern, the unorthodox use of blue lines where others might blend – or get over-painterly, the unflinching positioning, the tell-tale language of the hands and the piecing psychological intensity of the eyes in her portraits carries through from her earliest work on.
And I adore the way Alice Neel embraced every movement, fashion, and personality on the road to modern art in her own cool, detached, and humble way. Changing body ideals throughout the century- rolls and curves of the healthiness of the Post War Era,dissolve into the frank emaciation of the late sixties and seventies- all of this is handeled with curiousity and without judgement. for example, the pubis is always a matter of fact in her nudes. Neel's career spanned nearly five decades of fashion history and the artist embraces all the trends - graish paisley prints and broken fishnet are all ripe players in her compostiions. All the while, the artist lived in Spanish Harlem and Brooklyn when it was muy unfashionable and maintained many escandolosa arrangements...
Her portrait of Frank O’Hara is singular and fantastic in a way that if I were a poet this would be absolutely like how I would want to represented. But mostly it’s her many drawings and paintings of her family which move me. The lady loved her kids and her friends and she drew and painted them in an honest and absolutely loving manner and that is not a bad way to live and be remembered at all...
I overheard a great many candid discussions at the show from all types and age groups and it makes me happy that Alice Neel continues to be relevant.
The Andy Warhol crowd latched on to Alice Neel for a while, by the way, and thus I’m including the Warhol and Gerald Malanga portraits which were not part of the collection at the exhibit at The National Museum of Women in the Arts. Comme les femministes the Pop Art crowd tend to read too much into and objectfy Neel as well.
Also I went to the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Corcoran afterwards, which was absolutely superfluous – overkill here, been there, seen and done that. Yikes, didn't the Corcoran mount a similar Warhol show four years ago? As much as I like Warhol, we could use something… fresher here. In DC. I’m dying.
The "Jackie Curtis and Red" portrait was one of the highlights of the Alice Neel show, though!
I’m trying to be all reciprocal with my mp3 copains, so here are some appropriate Factory-era tunes for yaws:
The Velvet Underground
(right click, download)
(right click, download)
Just as an aside, I first got to know the wonderful Filipina artist Pacita Abad, who passed away last year, through her installation at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the early nineties - recently after the museum opened. My family subsequently enjoyed a fond friendship with her and one of her glorious prints looks down on me as I type. Exhuberant journalist Howie Severino recently posted a tribute to one of her last projects, a gloriously painted bridge in otherwise sterile Singapore, and I'm linking here. Abad's spirit and warmth is greatly missed!