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Summer 2002

Hard-Won Innocence

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Daisy Fried
Alice Neel,
an exhibit at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
February 18–April 15, 2001.

Before the Philadelphia show—the first major Neel retrospective since 1974—the American artist Alice Neel was famous for being ignored. She painted portraits at a time when representation was anathema and abstract expressionism was art history’s dominant mode. She was female before second-wave feminism forced the art world to take women artists seriously. She was a feminist, and outspoken about the ways in which women are oppressed, but though eventually helped by feminism, was against special pleading. And she was a leftist—for a time a member of the Communist Party, and a lifelong activist—in an ultraconservative era.

Born near Philadelphia in 1900, Neel lived a quintessentially bohemian life. Married once, she had four children by three different fathers. She lost two daughters, one to diphtheria, and one when her Cuban-born husband, Carlos Enriquez, took their one-year-old girl, Isabetta, back to Cuba. Neel suffered a severe breakdown, tried twice to kill herself, and was hospitalized for much of 1931. Discharged, she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, im-mersing herself in the downtown leftist-activist art scene, working on and off under the Works Progress Administration. In 1934, a live-in boyfriend destroyed most of her early work—a devastating blow. In 1938 she moved to Spanish Harlem, where she lived and worked for the next twenty-five years, painting neighbors, family, and friends, and raising two sons as a single mother. She had occasional group and solo exhibitions, but worked mostly in obscurity, showing not at all between 1954 and 1960. Depressed, she sought counseling; her practical-thinking shrink urged her to self-promote more actively. She invited poet and Museum of Modern Art curator Frank O’Hara to sit for a portrait, which started a second career painting artists and art-world figures. Aided by the increasing feminism and radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, she began to get more and more attention. She died of cancer in 1984.

Neel’s portraits are vastly different from others of the same era. Philip Pearlstein, for example, pretty much equates a human body with a lamp with a rug, all of them compositional elements. Lucien Freud is fascinated with flesh itself—the body’s contours and textures and colors. Alice Neel’s people, clothed or nude, are psychological portraits and narrative sites, expressive of the individual and his milieu—and by extension, of Neel herself. They are neither entirely realist nor entirely expressionist. You can track the influence of various art movements across her body of work. She might appropriate Cezanne’s apples and tilted tabletop, or put a woman against a patterned background, recalling Matisse. Early street scenes are socialist-realist and documentary, while the scratchy, nervous brushwork in paintings from around 1960 is easy to associate with abstract expressionism. “I’m not against abstraction,” Neel said. “What I can’t stand is that the abstractionists pushed all the other pushcarts off the street. But I think when Bill de Kooning did those women it was great.”

A 1935 portrait of the poet Kenneth Fearing has a surrealistic skeleton pouring blood out of his chest in place of a heart, “to show,” Neel said, “that even though he wrote such deadpan verse...his heart bled for the grief of the world.” The skeleton, and other tiny figures painted around Fearing, recall the symbolic fetishes in Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits. And surrealism must also have something to do with her 1933 portrait of Joe Gould, a bohemian Greenwich Village fixture who believed himself to be irresistible to women. Neel painted him naked with three large limp penises, and flanked him with rival (and larger) penises hung from a pair of headless men. Despite the satire, Gould does not seem pitiful or pitiable—there’s never anything so condescending as pity in a Neel portrait. He’s merely flawed and human. Like Neel, we laugh at him—liking him.

Neel painted women, children, and babies so often that they make in themselves a striking and highly original body of work. The documentation of pregnant bodies is fascinating—distended rib-cages, swollen, veiny breasts—but they’re not simply documentation. In 1935, Neel painted herself naked and plump and sitting on the toilet while a lover casually pees in the sink, condom in hand, as they prepare for sex. Forty-five years later, an unsparing nude self-portrait shows her sagging, fat, swollen-ankled octogenarian body. Like these pictures, her pregnant nudes are a celebration of the attraction and repulsion we all experience, confronted by the human body.

Neel is also ambivalent about child-bearing and child-rearing. Neel babies are adorable—and monstrous. Mothers are frazzled or comic, stoic or merely matter-of-fact. A 1967 oil, Nancy and Olivia, show Neel’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Nancy is a beautiful young woman in a green mini-dress; Olivia is a delightfully chubby baby. But Nancy, eyes wide, twists sideways on a chair that seems too small for her, anxiously clutching three-month-old Olivia—who has the potato head, crossed eyes, drool mouth, and spastic limbs of a very young baby. “Nancy looks afraid,” Neel said, “because this was her first child.”

Children in Neel portraits tend to be unselfconscious. Two African-American girls stare back at you, fascinated and a little mystified. The art historian Linda Nochlin’s daughter Daisy leans eagerly forward, barely restrained by her sophisticated art-professional mother. The most astonishing child-portrait in the show is a full-length nude of Neel’s lost daughter, Isabetta. Neel painted the five-year-old during one of the only two times she saw her after Enriquez took the child away to Cuba.

Isabetta stands naked and full-frontal, hands firmly on her hips, one of her enormous feet positioned as if stepping forward. Her hair fans glossily out over her shoulders—no beribboned girly pigtails here. Her enormous menthol-blue eyes are cool. It feels absolutely confrontational. But she’s also just an impatient little kid, ready to run off when mom gets done painting. A naked adult wouldn’t pose like this. An adult would loll or slump, be sensual or shy. Isabetta’s brashness comes from innocence, but that brashness is also what makes you aware of the woman present in the child’s body, with its future problems and pleasures and inevitabilities.

Portraits of men show sons and lovers, gay men with their partners, young Harlem men, artists and art critics. All are rumpled, creased, and marked by living. Sometimes Neel is tender towards them, sometimes not at all. Sometimes they are awkward, sometimes they seem simply men showing off their penises—a subject about which Neel could also be quite tender. This is the female gaze vigorously in action.

In his exhibition catalogue essay, Richard Flood says that “while Neel produced a number of paintings of women in the art world, they somehow seem less opinionated [than her pictures of men].” He’s particularly interested in Neel’s pair of portraits of Frank O’Hara. The first O’Hara is in profile. He’s graceful, romantic, and slightly prim, a batch of purple lilacs behind his head. That took five sittings. The last time he came to her studio, Neel asked him to sit for a quick second portrait. This O’Hara is entirely different: he’s a desiccated creature with a wizened face, squinty eyes, age-spots, a grim rictus of a grin revealing discolored teeth. The lilacs are brown and dead, the brushstrokes agitated and sketchy.

Flood thinks “something must have gone horribly awry...to inspire Neel’s aggressive, apparently spontaneous flaying of the poet’s flesh from the curator’s soul.” To me this portrait is simply an alternate vision, even an expression of fellow feeling. O’Hara, complicated, frazzled, unhappy, looks back at Neel—and at us—as if to say, yes, we all know what lust can do. Neel called this the “Beat” portrait and said it was a truer representation of O’Hara’s difficult life.

Neel’s 1967 picture of Henry Geldzahler, Twentieth Century Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, is certainly not friendly. Geldzahler is a pudgy little pouting man with tiny twisty boneless hands (Neel’s paintings of hands were highly expressive, defying anatomy whenever necessary to make meaning). Neel, like many others in New York at the time, probably didn’t like him. When she asked Geldzahler to include her in a show of contemporary New York artists, he said “Oh, so you want to be a professional.” But Neel’s Geldzahler is not just a powerful twerp; he also has a spoiled little-boy-lost charm. It’s as if once Neel started painting she couldn’t help liking her subject.

Neel’s most iconic, least intimate paintings are of her Hispanic and African-American neighbors in Harlem. In spite or perhaps because of her intensely democratic politics, she seems to look at her Harlem neighbors from something of a distance, as if she can’t quite access the complicated psychology she finds in her Caucasian subjects. Pictures of neighbor kids are as charming as any of her child-portraits, but portraits of adults, like a young Hispanic woman, don’t have the incisive human comedy—the gentle and not-so-gentle fun-making that is an act of identification on Neel’s part—which is elsewhere so compelling. But if these paintings lack Neel’s usual sense of mischief towards her fellow adults, neither are they sentimental or condescending. They are pictures of real people living real lives in everyday domestic situations.

Painting for Neel was always a political act. Painting about the Depression, she shows New York street scenes, or a destitute woman with her face in her hands being interviewed by bureaucrats. Painting minority neighbors, she paints about poverty and racism. World War II, overseas fascism, and the Holocaust are rarely explicit in her art. But 1959’s Rag in Window, a view from Neel’s Harlem apartment of a snowy tenement, with a tattered rag caught on a window frame, is symbolic of large-scale suffering. Neel said of it, “that rag blowing about year after year after year, I called ‘the twentieth century’.” A 1936 painting of a Com-munist Party torchlight parade through the streets of New York is more explicit. A marcher’s sign says Nazis Murder Jews. Neel said: “A critic wrote: ‘An interesting picture, but the sign is too obvious.’ But if they had noticed that sign, thousands of Jews might have been saved.”

The Holocaust also comes into 1965’s Fuller Brush Man. The Fuller Brush man knocked on her door and tried to sell her brushes. She invited him to pose for her. He wears a light blue suit and bow tie. With his eager expression, large protruding ears, big hands curving on his knees, he resembles a spaniel begging. But Fuller Brush Man is about survival: he had been in the death camps at Dachau. This isn’t the sentimental survival that makes you a better person, improved by your suffering. It’s simple endurance. The man remains unglamorous, un-noble, ordinary.

Neel found her survivors everywhere, or tried to: under surveillance by the FBI for Communist activity in the Fifties, she asked the agents who interviewed her to sit for portraits. Unfortunately for posterity, they declined. But it makes me think about what Neel means when she says, “I tried to reflect innocently.” To see the human side of your persecutors, to discover in a goofy Fuller Brush man something new about survival, to see Henry Geldzahler or Joe Gould sympathetically, to see the reality of motherhood and the contradictions of being Frank O’Hara, Neel needed to abolish all preconceptions about what she painted. She did it by working and working and going on working, in her unfashionable chosen mode, until she could see each subject new.

Daisy Fried’s first book of poems, She Didn’t Mean to Do It, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. She lives in Philadelphia.


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