Alice Neel

“The artist is a direct product of life. He is an apparatus born to be the receptor, the condenser, to transmitter and the reflector of the aspirations, the desires and hopes of his ages.” Diego Rivera

For the second time in a few months I was confronted, drawn to a book on the first display selves of the library! The first time was a biography of Dorothea Lang a photographer/photojournalist who was a self-taught unconventional women of her times. I was drawn to this biography as part of my self learning about photography, history and style of the work of photography as art and political or conscious raising medium. I knew nothing of Dorothea Lang, even though I have seen some of her work, and much of her work because she photographed for federal Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration was anonymously shown.

In the biography I was treated to the journey of the 30’s, to the 60’s terrain of the art world, the federal governments activity in creating some of the most lasting photographs of the depression area, as well as Ms Lang’s struggle and acceptance in the world around her.  There is a blog that has not yet been posted about her, now I guess I need to dust it off and share. But this blog is about another artist.

Alice Neel
Alice Neel

Three weeks ago, the same thing happened when I walked by this same shelf of books, the end piece, flashing covers of books trying to attract attention. Here as Phoebe Hoban’s Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. I looked the book, gave it a quick look see, and walked away to look at video’s which is what I was there to get. But guess what, the book kept calling to me, ‘come on Jeff, you don’t know anything about this woman or her work, this is your filling the well project.’ So I went back and picked it up. The journey begun… Once again a journey through most of the last century. Phoebe Hoban states on the third page of book: Neel’s life is not just the saga of a great American painter; it is a great American saga. Born into a proper Victorian family at the turn of century, Neel came of age during suffrage, struggled through the Depression, and lived through the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution, reaching her prime in a time when she was finally permitted to do – and even celebrated for doing – just what she had strived to do all along: for a life of  an independent women who was first and foremost an artist.”

Alice Neel pursued her art, her painting in spite of the conventions of the time. Her relationships reflected her need to be needed, but also her desire to be part of the art world. The she had four children throughout her life, her two daughter’s from her only marriage to Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez  Neel’s two son’s born of different father, and raised by the men who came and went through Alice life.  Her philosophy was “The road that I pursued, and the road that I think keeps you and artist, is that no matter what happens to  you, you keep on painting.”

Carlos

And she did. Painted everyday, most of her worked piled up in her apartments, leaning on walls, waiting to be seen and shared with the world. Many times she brought people to her home, to view her work, and would have them enthralled for hours with her canvas.

Myself not being a painter, or very familiar with the art world I will use the paragraph on the sleeve of the book that describes Alice Neel’s work: “Neel’s hundreds of portraits portray a universe of powerful personalities and document an age. Neel painted through the Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution of the 60’s, feminism, and the feverish eighties. Fiercely democratic in her subjects, she portrayed her lovers, her children, her spanish Harlem neighbors, pregnant nudes, crazy people, and the famous art world figures, all in a searing, psychological style uniquely her own… Neel’s portraits are as arrestingly executed as they are relentlessly honest.”

I found her story and drive to be creative to be driven by something deeper than I even think she ever understood. She struggle with her life but she never struggle with her art, her creativeness, she painted through it all, all decades, all ups and down of her life. To finally truly recognized in her late sixties, and seventies, and painted one of the only true self portraits in her late 70’s, nude! Of that portrait it is written, “Neel knowingly crashed right through the boundaries of self-portraiture with her late, great masterpiece, gouging a new niche in the cannon. She’s arguably the only artist in history to have painted her first self-portrait so late in life, and to have compounded that breakthrough by stripping herself bare.”

Alice in her 80's

From my reading and hopefully further study of Alice Neel’s work I will see how naked she was, how unconventional, how against the grain and yet as time rolled she met up with herself, the art world welcomed and accepted her, and her art as masterpieces in her time!

She speaks of her work “A good portrait of mine has even more than just the accurate features. It has some other thing. If I have any talent in relationship to people, apart from planning the whole canvas, it was my identification with them. I get so identified when I paint them, when they go home I feel frightful. I have no self – I have gone into this other person. And by doing that, there’s a kind of something I get that other artist don’t get …. It is my way of overcoming the alienation. It is my ticket to reality.”

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Alice Neel”

  1. Thanks for the introduction to Alice Neel – what a fascinating and courageous woman! I appreciate her honesty and integrity. It would have been amazing to visit her home and explore her canvases and talk with her. Her life seems to demonstrate that remaining true to one’s self is the best approach in art and in life. Happy you found some inspiration and encouragement, Jeff!

    1. Barbara,

      Thank you for the comments! I was not sure what I captured with this blog… I tried to offer a small view of a very large life of a woman and an artist. I hope I have done that.

  2. Hi Jeff~~I like your summary here: From my reading and hopefully further study of Alice Neel’s work I will see how naked she was, how unconventional, how against the grain and yet as time rolled she met up with herself, the art world welcomed and accepted her, and her art as masterpieces in her time!

    How naked can we be as artists, how unconventional? And can we meet up with ourselves, finally, through the art that we’ve created? (On another note, I was thinking yesterday that our lives are really the greatest artworks we can make in this lifetime. Do you think?)

    1. Kathy,

      You are correct, our lives are our greatest creation!
      Thank you for restating and using the summery as a discussion point! Well done!

      I am Love, Jeff

  3. A photographer and a historian! I actually learned some things here today. The message I captured from your experience is that both of these artists captured life, naked, raw, real, pleasant and unpleasant. Perhaps that is what they are calling you to do, too.

    1. Barbara,

      I sought to express my journey as well as the artist journey and women and artist, their struggle as well as their acceptance as creative beings, as artist.
      Two trips through the early 20th Century art world has been a very illuminating experience…
      This experience has made me aware of looking deeper into what and why I do as an artist, what triggers my Being present, captures the moment, etc…

      I am Love, Jeff

  4. Jeff – This is an introduction for me because until now I was not familiar with Alice Neel.

    I love how you said, “…the book kept calling to me, ‘come on Jeff, you don’t know anything about this woman or her work, this is your filling the well project.’ So I went back and picked it up.”

    I also enjoyed the very last sentence on the book jacket, “She’s arguably the only artist in history to have painted her first self-portrait so late in line, and to have compounded that breakthrough by stripping herself bare.”

    I think it should have said “courageous” or “brave” enough — WOW! — that takes a lot of guts!

    I like how she explained, “I get so identified when I paint them, when they go home I feel frightful. I have no self – I have gone into this other person.”

    You’ve got me chomping at the bit — now I’m going to have to learn more. Thank you!

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