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Alice Neel: Courage and Truth

Alice Neel Retrospective Exhibition
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, NY, June 29 - September 17,2000
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, October 6 - December 31,2000
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, February 18 - April 15, 2001
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, June 9 - September 2, 2001

Alice Neel, The Last Years
Robert Miller Gallery, New York City
September 8 - October 14, 2000

Alice Neel's Life: A Search for a Road and a Search for Freedom

Born in the first month of the twentieth century near the city of brotherly love, with no artist to paint it, no writer to write it, blond Alice at eight knew she wanted to be an artist, yet kept it her secret. She went to work for good money for the sake of her family, which didn't have much. Later she quit Civil Service job, went to the Philadelphia School of Design for Women because she didn't want to be distracted by men, whom she liked a lot. She got a scholarship but was too rough and tough for this tea-pouring school. She left it for the Pennsylvania Academy's summer school. There she was distracted by dark-haired Carlos. Alice and Carlos spent so much time together walking and talking, they were kicked out of the Adademy. They got married and went to Havana, where his house had rooms with marble floors, balconies, peacocks in the garden, sugar growing for miles in full view. They painted and painted everyday. She wrote poetry and had a baby.

After they returned to New York, the baby died. Still Alice and Carlos worked and painted. Isabetta was born. Carlos took the baby to Cuba. Alice stayed and painted. Depression took the Cuban riches. Carlos went to Paris with a friend's money. Alice painted more and asked her mother to care for Isabetta. Her mother said No. Isabetta stayed in Cuba. Alice died a little every day her baby was away, yet she stayed with her no-saying mother.

Carlos returned but could not save Alice. His girlfriend was in Paris. Alice put her head in the gas oven but left the cellar door open. At the hospital for suicidals, she recovered, met Doolittle, and moved back to New York, where she painted anyone she knew or met, some unusual enough to suit her style. She got on to the WPA too. Doolittle cut up her paintings.

Alice became a Communist; met José, a guitar player; lived in Spanish Harlem; and had another baby, a boy. José ran off. Alice met Sam, a photographer, and had another baby boy. Her father died, her mother died, and Sam left. Her two sons grew up, one to be a doctor, the other to be a lawyer, both with children of their own.

Alice painted artists, critics, writers, intellectuals, kids in the neighborhood, her own kids, her grandkids, city streets, a few flowers, even cows. She painted everyone who was anyone and those who were no one until she painted them. Andy Warhol with scar, naked pregnant women with huge breasts and dark nipples, nude young girls, her mother in old age, her father in his coffin. She lived in the same small apartment even after she became famous.

She once said, "Art is two things: a search for a road and a search for freedom. It's very hard to get freedom."

— Dee Shapiro


Isabetta, 1934.
Oil on canvas
43" x 25.25"

Dead Father

Dead Father, 1946.
Oil on canvas
36.5" x 28"

Last Sickness

Last Sickness, 1952.
Oil on canvas
30" x 22"

Dee Shapiro

In speaking of Shakespeare's Sonnets, W. H. Auden said, "Art is born of humiliation."1 Whether or not you choose to agree, Alice Neel did. Through her art she told the truth "at the expense of untold humiliations."2 (Her complicated and difficult life has been recounted in several sources, among them in her own words, in a book by Patricia Hills.) A retrospective of Neel's work was at the Whitney Museum of American Art from June 29th through September 17, 2000, and will be travelling to other museums around the country through September 2, 2001. The body of work on display consists of watercolors and paintings. There are still lifes, landscapes, WPA subjects, and views through Neel's window, but most of the pictures are portraits of family, friends, and acquaintances. I have chosen to describe a few selected works.

Nady Nude

Nadya Nude, 1933.
Oil on canvas, 24 x 31".

Nadya Nude, 1933
24 x 31"
The figure falls diagonally across the canvas on a bed. White sheets are richly painted. Her head rests on a pillow, the right leg is stretched out, left is bent at the knee. A continuous line runs from the left thigh to the genital triangle. The outer line of the right leg ends under the breast. Her abdomen, as round and full as her breasts. Her head is small, topped with a fluff of black hair. A diamond-shaped patterned bedspread or quilt, painted alternately in red and black, appears in the space at the side of the bed. Black triangular shapes mimic the genital area. The face is mask-like, haunting, white-toned and proportionately small. Eyelids almost cover the eyes as the subject looks down. Lips are a thin slash of red, the only red save the diamond shapes of the quilt. The figure, casual, relaxed, open, yet with weight or heaviness in the eyes.

Andy Warhol

Alice and John (Rothschild) in the Bathroom, 1935.
Watercolor, 8 x 10in.

Alice and John (Rothschild) in the Bathroom, Watercolor 1935
8 x 10"
Alice sits on a red wooden toilet seat. A stream of urine, clearly delineated. Arms above her head entwined in strawberry-blond hair, same color as the curls of the pubic hair. Breasts and legs are turned outward, repeating the shape the arms enclose. John stands at the sink which fades into the wall. His feet are clad in mauve-colored slippers (Alice is barefoot); his right hand holds his penis on the sink's edge where he is urinating. He is tall and lanky, with the curve of his buttocks repeated in his calves. The curve of his back leads to a long neck and a bent bald head. Both John and Alice have lowered eyes and seem preoccupied with their private activities yet are comfortably intimate in the circumstances. This small watercolor is reminiscent of work by Otto Dix or Egon Schiele but with less erotic resonance.

Nancy and Olivia

Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia), 1967.
Oil on canvas, 39.25" x 36".

Nancy and Olivia 1967
39 1/4 x 36"
Nancy sits, buttocks overhanging on a line-drawn wooden chair, torso turned towards our right, head facing front. She wears an olive-green dress with an embroidered pattern in violet and pink on her sleeve. The green of her dress reappears in a lighter tone in the uppermost leg. A pale pthaylo-green paneled door in the background divides the canvas. Olivia (about three months old), centered in the canvas, is clutched by her mother, cheek to cheek. She is wearing a dress painted in a lighter tone than the color of the door behind. She looks straight ahead with slightly unfocused wide-open eyes. She is active and struggling, one foot firmly planted in her mother's lap, the other pressed towards the stomach. Nancy holds her still, arms wrapped tightly around. She stares out wide-eyed, with a serious, anxious look, shoulders tensed. On the viewer's left, a violet shadow on the wall and a gray wash between shapes on the floor. The composition seems unsettling, as does the content of the painting.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, 1972.
Oil on canvas, 66 x 40in.

Andy Warhol 1970
60 x 40"
In this vertical canvas, Andy Warhol, shirtless, sits on a simple line-drawn, solid couch that moves off the canvas on the viewer's left. He is right of center, hands folded between knees, eyes closed, hair a pale gray with blue-green, characteristically falling to one side. Splashes and shapes of color make up his face. He is aloof, contemplative, not socially engaged, but present. His scar is dotted with white stitch marks, his corset tied below (his stomach muscles were destroyed when the bullets were removed after he was shot by Valerie Solanis). His concave chest strains between small drooping breasts with pale pink nipples. His middle is wide and bulging. Paint is lightly applied and has a blue cast. One knee of his brown trousers is left unpainted, but the quirky assured line of this under drawing is visible. His shoes and black socks are compelling in this sparely painted portrait. Dress shoes of a business man, narrow, polished to a shine, carefully rendered. Alice said of Warhol "I think he is the greatest advertiser living, not a great portrait painter."

Linda Nochlin and Daisy

Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973.
Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 44in.

Linda Nochlin and Daisy 1973
55 1/2 x 44"
Mother and daughter sit in the corner of a Victorian green-printed silken couch cropped at the viewer's left. Detail is rendered more completely than in earlier paintings. Deep orange-rust covers the floor, Daisy's long, wavy red-orange hair held back with a black headband. She seems mesmerized by the viewer (or painter), eyes wide and mouth slightly opened with the look of innocent fascination. Her red-shod feet dangle off the couch. Her mother crosses her legs in pants the color of which is soft but difficult to characterize (perhaps khaki). Shoulder and arm are behind the daughter's hair. The left arms and hands of both the sitters are in the same position on the arm of the couch, mimicking each other in a familial gesture. Linda has an interested, questioning, intent look. Her face is darker and redder than her fair-skinned daughter's. A hard dark line runs around her chin and cheek. There is a large ring with blue stone on the finger of her left hand.


Self-Portrait, 1980.
Oil on canvas, 54 x 40in.
Self-Portrait 1980
54 x 40"
She sits in her blue-striped chair, one that has appeared in other paintings. Three of the wooden legs rest on a ground of green and orange divided diagonally. There are shadows of two of the three chair legs and a shadow under her right foot, which is flexed upward, toes splayed; the foot floats on green. She sits nude, holding a paintbrush in one hand and cloth in the other. A purple wash surrounds the figure. Her elbows rest on the arms of the chair. Her breasts lay on her full abdomen. Her right shoulder is turned inward and the curve of her back is revealed. The outline remains tentative and has been redrawn in places. It is the blue of the stripes on the chair. Her white hair loosely hugs her head and falls slightly to one side of her deep orange cheek. There is a green shadow under her nose and mouth — the same color as the floor. The palette is spare but feels intense since colors are clean and bold and almost complementary. She looks at the viewer through her glasses with mouth turned down. It is a direct, intense, studied look as though she were looking at and seeing the viewer as subject.

Since I saw Alice Neel's first exhibition at the Whitney in 1974, I have admired her individuality, her will, perseverance and resiliency, the way she sees the world and grasps the essentials and humanity of each of her sitters, her frank approach to the canvas and her ability to represent her sitters beyond their physical likenesses — as if she saw into their souls.

Auden has said that a duty of the poet (and surely of any artist) is "to bear witness to the truth."3 Alice Neel, who died in 1984, summed up her life in art with a characteristic searching exactitude that echoes Auden: "I told the truth as I perceived it, and, considering the way one is bombarded by reality, did the best and most honest art of which I was capable. I was also much more truthful and courageous on canvas."4 In the superb retrospective that has now left the Whitney and will be at the Addison Gallery of American Art (Andover, MA) through year's end, the full range of Neel's truth and courage are abundantly on display.

1James Fenton "Auden at Home,"The New York Review of Books, April 27, 2000
2Patricia Hills, Alice Neel, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983), p.185
3James Fenton "Auden at Home, The New York Review of Books, April 27, 2000
4Patricia Hills, Alice Neel, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), p. 185

Alice Neel. With essays by Ann Temkin, Susan Rosenberg, Richard Flood. Abrams, 2000 175 illustrations, 100 in full color, 176 pages.

If the Gods Had Meant Us to VotePictures of People

Pictures of People
by Pamela Allara

Allara, Pamela. Pictures of People, Brandeis University Press, 1988.
Hills, Patricia, Alice Neel. Harry N. Abrams, 1983.

Alice Neel Site

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