Alice Neel is one of those many artists who were sidelined, for too many years, by the great sweep of 20th century modernist abstraction and the "conceptualist" trend that followed in the last years of the century. It was a time when portrait painting was given short shrift, and Alice Neel was a portrait painter. She has, of course, since been rehabilitated in the eyes of the art cognoscenti--what little they know!--and is regarded with belated esteem for pictures that penetrate their subjects' heart and soul.
Now comes this documentary movie, Alice Neel, from her grandson Andrew, just recently made available on Netflix. It's alternately touching and infuriating--the latter, for me, at moments when it gets to be entirely too arty, reflecting on the process of the documentary itself more than on its subject. Get over that, and you'll enjoy this tribute to a feisty woman who cared little for anyone's opinion save her own.
It's clear from this story that Alice Neel lived to paint. Marriage, children, and the other contingencies of life seemed to happen along the way to the studio--a tiny apartment in Spanish Harlem that was cluttered with the results of her labors. Here her sitters sat. She painted them most often face-on, wide-eyed, unsmiling, stripped bare--whether clothed or naked. Neel shuns superficial physical beauty in favor of the deeper human qualities her studies reveal. Her people evince a peculiar, unpretentious nobility, a kind of stoic acceptance of what life has brought them by way of both body and social standing. If her painting seems rough, even at times unkind in its realism, it also reflects a profound compassion for her fellow human beings. Rooted in the expressionistic, leftist social realism of the pre-WWII period, when she started out, her art never wavers from its attention to the human predicament. Here's her picture of a young pregnant woman, a striking image that evokes all the joys, the anxieties, and the physical discomforts of that condition.
And here's a self-portrait that speaks eloquently of the aging process:
And the portrait of a fellow artist, Faith Ringgold:
The movie is the portrait of an artist, a mother, and a grandmother, and the picture it paints is a complex one. Neel emerges as an energetic, focused, uninhibitedly emotional woman, intellectually sharp, with a touch of lively cynicism in her view of human nature. Even in the year or so before her death, when the film was made, the juices flow. Asked about the appearance of multiple penises in one of her paintings, she responds exuberantly that it's not that she enjoys looking at them, it's that she wants to have them in her! She quite clearly loves the human body, loves nudity, loves the flesh. We see her, in a clip from a videotape made years earlier, delighting in the nudity of her grandchild--later the maker of THIS movie--as he delights in it himself, as children do, prancing around the studio while she paints him. You have to love this joyful part of her, thoroughly engaged in fleshiness of life and its rendering, through painting, into art.
The film does not flinch, though, from exploring the dark side of this woman whose art-making came first and foremost in her life and who seemed unable to form a stable and lasting relationship with the men who were attracted to her. The outcome of early broken marriages and separations, her family relationships are almost too byzantine to follow. Andrew's film offers acerbic sidebars with another grandchild, the daughter of a daughter Neel virtually abandoned as a young mother, allowing the child to return to the father's family in Cuba--and failing even to recognize, let alone acknowledge her at an art event later in life. Neel's two sons, Andrew's father and his half-brother, appear in the film as adults clearly suffering, each in his own way, from parental neglect and maternal narcissism. Neel was too busy in her devotion to her art to notice that her younger son was being subjected to physical abuse by his stepfather.
A complicated family life, then, and one that bequeathed these two sons with a mixture of bemused adulation for their mother and--in the latter case, particularly--bitterness and barely concealed anger. In the broader view, this is not just a film about AN artist, it's about the self-involvement that drives some artists--not all, by any means--in the conduct of their private lives, outside the studio. It can lead to behavior that is destructive to the point of cruelty. Those who take a more romantic view of the artist than I do will argue that this kind of singleness of purpose is the necessary path for a great artist. I recognize the trait, but do not myself subscribe to the notion of its necessity.
At any event, I'm glad to have seen this film, and glad to be reminded of the celebration of humanity that is the work of Alice Neel, the painter. In one of my own former lives, back in 1983, when I was Dean of the arts at a Southern California university, I was proud and pleased that our gallery pioneered a substantial exhibition of her work in the days work before the "art world" began to deem it acceptable again. We invited her out to our campus for a lecture, and were captivated by the astute observation and the delightful wit of a woman who was already in her eighties and as full of life, it seemed, as ever. She died, as it turned out, just one year later. After seeing the movie, I pulled out a copy of the catalogue from our art library shelves and found it dedicated "To Peter Clothier from Alice Neel '83." Quite a thrill!