What you should know about Alice Neel

Unfortunately, Alice Neel is identified first as being a female artist first and then an artist second.  Noticing this kind of sexist labeling is probably even more important today now that human rights in general in the United States seem as if they are headed for some terrible reversals since Trump took office in 2017.

The idea that female artists are as important as men has always had a murky and unsettling quality, because the playing field has never been level for women nor people of color in the Eurocentric and phallocentric world of art.  Often when female artists’ works are discussed, the formal qualities of the work and the content of the work is always in second and third place to the fact that the women is an artist.  Even the physical appearance of the artist seems to be more important than the appearance of the art itself.

Alice Neel’s painting could be dismissed as clumsy and not formally beautiful.  The anatomy of the figures, the paint quality, the color and even composition are not traditionally beautiful if one were to compare the paintings to painters popular before the late 19th century.

The paint quality in Neel’s painting is thin and almost washy.  There is little to no texture and the colors and flesh tones are either too intense (garish or overly stated oranges and pinks) or too muddy gray.    The viewer doesn’t have enough light and shadow to figure out where the light source is coming from.  The compositions are not so much chosen as more by accident.

For example, if you look at a John Singer Sargent portrait it has all the hallmarks of a painter who is looking back at earlier “old masters” such as Velazquez.  The shading, or chiaroscuro is very clear, the color makes sense in terms of the way we expect to see color and shading.  The brushwork shows a kind of skill that is practiced and predictable.  We don’t have to question its beauty in terms of anatomy, shading, color and even composition.  She does not include traditional linear perspective.  When she paints a chair, she doesn’t bother with a vanishing point or a clear system of perspective and depth. (Cezanne rejected perspective too and sometimes I wonder if it was by choice or by lack of skill.)

Alice Neel’s paintings are clumsy in comparison and the color is not traditional.  Hell, it doesn’t even have the same beauty that an Impressionist painter’s color such as Mary Cassatt has.  Neel doesn’t share in the same polished technique as Cassatt, Velazquez or Sargent.  Part of that is kind of on purpose and part of it has to do with context.  Artists such as Neel did not get the same traditional training as artists from before 1900 and the painters that come directly before her in the 50 years from1900-1950 established a type of anti-academic (anti traditional) precedent.  Think of Picasso, Kirchner, even the “Ashcan School” were looking for something new.  In fact, these artists defined themselves by rejecting the styles and conventions that came before them.

The content or iconography of Neel’s paintings is one of the things that made her famous.  As a New Yorker living through the era of Abstract Expressionism, the Beat Generation of Poets, and then the Pop Art and Happenings of the 60’s Neel knew a lot of arty people.  She was a bit of strange or weird person and this actually helped her to get people to model for her.  She would go to art receptions and meet people, also she knew street people and people on the fringes of society and this also helped her to create meaningful content by simply painting either a famous person or a weird person.

I don’t think that Alice Neel planned or strategized here career.  Like many famous artists part of her fame came by her social interactions and how associations with other important people in New York’s avante garde (forward guard) can endorse and help an artist’s career.

For example, an artist who was at the time significantly more famous than she was Andy Warhol, painting him and associating herself with him created both an association that validated her.   She paints Warhol and while not trying to paint him in a flattering way, Neel’s portrait of him is also not meant as an insult either.  It was kind of a “lucky” kind of turn of events that make this portrait so interesting.  Context is everything.

Neel painted Warhol shortly after he had been stabbed.  He is wearing a corset that was designed to help him after the attack and he looks unhealthy.  (In almost all of Neel’s portraits the sitters look a bit unhealthy and even ugly) but in the case of Warhol it is really overstated because of how Neel painted.  Historians love to read into stuff like this.

In "The Andy Warhol Diaries," by Pat Hackett, it is clearly shown that he constantly surrounded himself by beautiful people and things, and strove for a level of physical perfection that was clearly out of his reach. Though bald, his vanity led him to don his trademark wig, shown in the painting carefully arranged, trying his best to maintain his dignity and illusion of youth.  Another thing in Neel’s favor when we analyze here painting.  In a way, it’s almost not important to know for certain if she intended to make him look this way.  It also ties in with what we know about Neel’s life.

Alice Neel had lived a life filled with crises and strife. One of her children had died while still an infant, and the other was abducted by a former husband. She was a self-taught artist with no formal training. Just knowing a couple of things like this about her gives her a kind of pedigree of “crazy artist,” just like Van Gogh that allows us to romanticize her as an artist and also allows our imaginations to run wild when we interpret her paintings.

I’ve seen several documentaries on Neel and one that I particularly remember she does come across as a bizarre or weird person.  In the video, she was attempting to get her grandson to calm down and he was running around her apartment naked and flashing his butt at her.  She came across in the interviews and film as a kind of crazy old lady.

Her status as a weird New York artist who had strong ties to artists such as Warhol made her easily promotable and salable as a kind of grand dame of the New York art world and also an excellent subject for feminist art historian Linda Nochlin.

This is a painting of Linda Nochlin and her daughter, Daisy. Nochlin was a professor at Vassar and wrote an essay in 1971 entitled "Why have there been no great women artists?", which helped to bring attention to feminist art history and argued that women had been 'deprived the opportunity to achieve greatness by their exclusion from the male dominated institutional systems of training, patronage, and criticism that set the standards of professional accomplishment.'

So when we look at this painting, knowing that Nochlin was a famous art historian who specialized in writing about female artists it can inspire interpretations that may have gone beyond what the artist intended.  For example, in the late 1990’s one of my students writes about this painting:

“Alice Neel is showing Nochlin as protective and loving toward her daughter, underscoring the belief that Nochlin held about creating a more equal future for her daughter as well as all the other young woman growing up in that time period, as well as beyond. There is a measure of tenderness and wistfulness shown in the painting, most likely because of the death of Alice Neel's' one child and kidnapping of the other. It is showing a strong, educated woman who is also fulfilling the role of a mother as well as a feminist, and succeeding at both.”

Whether or not this interpretation is the truth, is almost unimportant in today’s world in which interpretation and opinion seem to become almost more factual than actual fact.

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