American Studies Program Senior Project Advisor: Louis Masur Spring 2011 Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Amy Henderson and Carolyn Kinder Carr at the National Portrait Gallery for their generous assistance and to Louis Masur for being a great advisor and cheerleader for the past four years.
By Loretta Cremmins
Five portraits are discussed here. Click on the links below to find them or click on the changing image on the right.
You can click on each picture in the text to see a larger image.
A biography of Alice Neel
Alice Neel's portraits give an image of New York society in the 1970's. To compare her with the portrait photographer, Zaida Ben-Yusuf, whose work gives a picture of fin de siècle New York, read Rob Macdonald's review of Frank H. Goodyear III's book.
Linda Nochlin and Daisy (1973) depicts a middle-aged mother and young daughter seated on Neel’s Empire sofa. Nochlin, clad in khaki pants and matching shoes, crosses her legs tightly as she leans slightly back behind her daughter Daisy. Her left hand, resting on the sofa’s arm, appears bony and thin. The right hand is more hidden yet it rests on Daisy in a protective manner. Nochlin is shown as tense and rigid, with an air of anxious intelligence. The purple and yellow of Nochlin’s clothes flow into Daisy’s golden hair, bright blue and ultramarine outfit, and ultimately her little red shoes. The clothing is casual and wrinkled while the wearers are unusually stiff. While both Mother and daughter stare directly ahead, the viewer’s eye is drawn to young Daisy’s wide stare and open mouth. Her youthful face is vibrant and inquisitive and her demeanor reveals impatience at having to pose. In contrast, Nochlin’s worried and tired wrinkles create a face which is almost caricature and mask-like. “It is a cruel portrayal,” expressed Henry Hope, “of a not unattractive woman.” The disparity in color, texture and emotion underlines the difference in ages of these two females. Yet concurrently, Daisy’s right arm mirrors her mothers and the two bodies sit in nearly identical poses, thus hinting at their similarities.
Nochlin’s face is at the peak of the triangular composition, the place to which the viewer’s eye is usually drawn in paintings. By pulling one’s eye to Daisy, Neel may be suggesting the importance and potential of our youth. Though unrelated, it is important to note that the sofa upon which they sit is the same one Neel often used for posed subjects. Normally vaguely sketched, the sofa is elaborately decorated it for this occasion. The patterned green silk and mahogany trimmed couch rests royally upon a golden carpet, perhaps mirroring Daisy’s golden locks. This was the first and only time Neel depicted its fabric covering in such detail. While we do not have an explanation for the detailed sofa, there exists a commentary this painting’s sittings. Neel dictated neither the pose nor the gesture,
A conscious stream of dialogue and discussion while painting was characteristic of Neel’s painting style. While she would stir up controversial debates and offer a running monologue during some sittings, this quote reveals Alice catering to her ‘audience’. While Neel may have been attempting to counter the boredom of sitting for a portrait, Linda Nochlin finds this emotion to be present in all Neel’s work. In addition to capturing the monotony, this painting captures Linda's inner anxiety. As she recalls, “My mother was horrified by the portrait. She said, ‘You don’t look so anxious and so worried in real life.’ I’m rather a smiling type, actually. But Alice painted everyone like that. In a way, all her portraits embody the anxieties of their times. They’re portraits of a universal existential anxiety. But they also embody, on a more literal level, the relative painfulness of sitting for a portrait.” Neel’s recognition and furthermore, depiction of both the instantaneous and repressed emotions supplies us with a painting of real humans with whom any viewer can sympathize and moreover, relate.
Linda Nochlin (1931-) a prominent art historian and feminist, has written extensively on Nineteenth Century French Realist painters such as Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. She is best known for the previously noted article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” which debatably introduced the feminist movement to the art world. At the time of this painting, Nochlin was teaching and Vassar College. Today, she is the Lila Cheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. By this time, Neel had produced a number of portraits of women as strong individuals. When Neel heard of Nochlin’s pioneering feminist work, “not only in the historical recovery of female agency and her championing of contemporary women artists, but also in her crucial understanding of the social history of women’s oppression and the politics of the erotic,” she approached Nochlin about sitting for a portrait. In a later interview, Nochlin admitted, “I don’t know how my daughter got into it, but she did. I was very fortunate, because my daughter is definitely the star of the portrait.” This was no mistake. Neel purposely chose to paint Nochlin as a woman and mother rather than a writer or critic, in her ‘modern urban maternity.’ This invented phrase speaks to the contemporary double life of the female intellectual, in which the arch feminist takes on the dual roles of both mother and thinker. Moreover, this tension can be understood as a biographical echo of Neel’s own struggle with being a mother and a painter.
Linda and Daisy introduces the theme of the double life of the female intellectual, but does not resolve it. Neel does not offer a solution because she, in her own personal life, continuously struggled with it and never resolved it herself. The tension between Neel’s responsibilities (as a wife and mother) and her insatiable urge to paint led Neel to make questionable decisions. When asked why she gave up custody of her first child, she replied; “You see, I always had this awful dichotomy. I loved Isabetta, of course I did. But I wanted to paint.” And thus painting prevailed over society’s prescribed motherly role. Early on, her overpowering desire to paint left Neel with a lingering guilt; “because I used to think the way the normal world thinks: there’s a certain function for women, that they have to do the ordinary things.”  This ‘certain function’ of which Neel speaks has become a common figure in American culture, the notion of a stay-at-home Mother who cooks, cleans and raises children. Neel could not succumb to this “normal” life. “So I was the world’s best conniver,” she reports, “When the children were small, I worked at night, which was hard to do.” By refusing society’s proscriptions for a woman’s life, Neel fashioned a life for herself in which she was both the painter and mother, yet she did not stop here. Neel debunked the myth of “blissful all-absorbing motherhood,” as did so many working women in their real lives. Moreover, she sought to share similar stories in her 1970’s paintings of women and children, such as Linda and Daisy. By creating pieces of art that displayed these women, Neel broadcast the message that such a way of life was nothing to be ashamed of.
In a documentary film on Neel’s life, one of her sons offers an interesting hypothetical to what Neel could have been. “If she had been satisfied with the paragon of what women were supposed to be in her era, she would have accomplished nothing, Ok? Nothing.” He notes that she may have been the greatest mother or housewife, but his mother could not identify with that sort of life. “She didn’t want any of it, she didn’t want that stuff, she wasn’t interested in it. She didn’t even know what it was in some way.” Hence the only way Alice Neel could think of living was a life deviant from society’s normal role for females, particularly those with children. It was only by the 1970’s, when her sons moved out and went off to college, that she was able to devote herself solely to painting. This allowed the painter to shake off the feeling of guilt and focus on the experience of being a real women, not the type the masculine world prescribes. In this endless struggle to refute the way the “normal world thinks,” Neel began a new series of works that snubbed society’s traditional representation of females by creating a range of female nudes.
Mary Garrard offers a feminist reading of the portrait in her piece Alice Neel and Me. She remarks, “Alice astutely contrasts Daisy’s energy and innocence with her mother’s tempered experience - her face is open where Linda’s is wary; her dangling legs signal expectancy, Linda’s crossed legs convey mature self-protection. The portrait speaks of generational continuity and its revitalization - surely applicable to feminism and its generational legacy as to individual families.” In short, Garrard sees Daisy as a carrier for the next generation of feminists. This interpretation leads the greater question of what this composition tells us about women and mothers, particularly during this era. In response to Gerrard’s reading, it is important to understand what she is not saying. Gerrard is taking the mother’s legacy and playing it onto the child to carry into the next generation. She omits the traditional view that children are meant to be bearers of the father’s heritage, most obviously through his last name. This female-centered reading could serve, therefore, to overturn traditional familial customs. While this may not have been a central motive of the women’s movement, it is in accordance with their overarching plan to liberate women.
On the same token, Neel’s motives were not exactly in line with those of the feminist movement, yet she believed in their overarching goal of female liberation. In one of her exhibition catalogs, Neel is quoted to have been delighted in the “the changes in American society, in history catching up with her.” What Neel truly respected about the women’s liberation movement are the solutions it offered to the double life of the female intellectual issue, that which Neel depicted in Linda Nochlin and Daisy and struggled with in her own life. In her honorary doctoral address at Moore College of Art in 1971, Neel declared;
This quote highlights the way in which Neel championed feminist causes without exactly being a feminist, an important distinction that comes to light in her 1975 painting of Chuck and Cindy Nemser.
Cindy Nemser and Chuck shows a nude couple seated on Neel’s same empire sofa. Cindy, the female, sits in front of her husband as she leans forward. Arms crossed, Cindy covers almost all of her most feminine parts, while leaving her arms, legs and entire side visible to the painter. Chuck lounges behind his wife in a more relaxed pose; his legs crossed one over the other. While one of Chuck’s hands protectively holds his wife’s midsection, the other is placed gently on his own knee. Cindy’s black hair is echoed by Chuck’s black head and chest hair. This dark color runs along the length of the painting as the wood outlining the sofa. As contrasted against the one in Linda Nochlin and Daisy, this portrait’s sofa lacks the level of decoration and luxury. Upon careful inspection, we see that Cindy is in fact touching her husband with her left hand. Despite the physical contact, both subjects gaze directly forward at the painter rather than at each other.
The brightest part of the painting is Cindy’s midsection and upper leg. The viewer’s eye is instantly drawn to the illuminated curves of her body. Conversely, Chuck is shown darker and behind the light, almost in a shadow. It is not an exaggeration to say that he almost blends in with the sofa as a background as he takes on an almost green-ish hue. As Phoebe Hoban remarked, “…Neel’s portraits of men…are not aggrandized, they are not heroic, they are human and vulnerable.” This quote is evidently applicable as the depiction of Chuck falls perfectly within this description. By placing Cindy as the dominant focus of the painting, Neel is sending the message of a strong woman who “outshines” her husband. Yet at the same time, Chuck’s hand reminds us of his sustaining role as a strong support base behind this strong woman. Moreover, the painting reveals clues about the civility of this relationship - the two aren’t fighting for the spotlight or dominant spot. Rather, Cindy and Chuck accept their roles and appear content in them. Thus it is no mistake that Neel titled the painting “Cindy Nemser and Chuck,” the woman’s full name and subsequently, that of her husband. The irony is that ‘Nemser’ is Chuck’s last name and merely Cindy’s adopted name after marriage. Nevertheless, Neel clearly delivers the message that this is a painting of Cindy Nemser, a woman accompanied by her husband, Chuck.
This recollection shows Neel’s remarkable skill of helping people let go of preconceived notions and plans for how the painting ‘should’ look. Furthermore, it reveals her way of extracting truth from people and relationships - meanwhile letting them think it occurred ‘naturally.’ By disrobing Cindy and Chuck Nemser, Neel stripped her subjects down to the classic pair in human history, the nude male and female, almost reminiscent of Adam and Eve. Yet Neel defies history by taking the man and placing him in the shadows, stripping him of his manly power and dominance.
The nude depiction of Cindy Nemser can be viewed as a microcosm of Neel’s female nudes. She sits posed in a strong position, eyes gazing forward and back straight, while meanwhile her arms drape comfortably and her feet huddle timidly. This variety of adjectives explains how Neel extracted and depicted the spectrum of emotions that pass through a female at one point in time. In Painted Truths, Jeremy Lewison asserts that the occasion of Neel painting a nude was more “an opportunity to make an unclothed portrait, for instead of reducing the female form to a mere object of flesh, she endowed it with personality, wit, and humanity, particularized with the sitters’ facial features and restored their dignity as human beings, rather than treating them as sexual objects.” The best way to understand this shift is to compare any of Neel’s nudes to the classic Olympia (1863) nude by Edouard Manet. Passive and with vacant eyes, Manet’s nude lays sprawled out on a bed, as if awaiting a male companion. Rather than painting women as vulnerable sexual creatures and objects of male gaze, Neel allows, or maybe forces, women to retain their own experience. In a small article in The Feminist Journal, Bauer aptly sums up the genius of Neel’s female portraits; “Neel’s bold and unsentimental nudes shattered the myth of “woman…[as] changeless and unchangeable” and deconstructed the visual convention of the female nude’s ‘beauty of form, harmony and timelessness’”. Furthermore, Neel’s nudes actually reverse, contradict and sometimes satirize traditional female representations by capturing the complex experience of living in a female body. While Chuck holds his wife’s side, she is not simply submissive and sexualized. Instead, Cindy Nemser is shown as multifaceted - strong, weak, passive and assertive, all at once, for this is the complete experience of being a female.
And yet, Cindy’s prominent role appears, once again, ‘natural.’ It is as if women didn’t strangle masculine power from the male’s hands, but rather naturally posses their own feminine supremacy inherently. Cindy Nemser is said to have been Neel’s earliest and strongest supporter. A co-founder of the Feminist Art Journal, Nemser wrote multiple articles and exhibit catalogs on Neel. Though he is depicted in the shadows, it is noteworthy to point out that Chuck Nemser was an editor for the Feminist Art Journal. Depicted as supportive and encouraging, Chuck served these same roles in real life. This painting speaks to the fact that Neel championed woman’s liberation and power, not because she hated men but because she was a self-described humanist who searched to paint the true human spirit.
The distinction is important because Neel did not label herself a “Feminist” nor she did intend to create ‘Feminist art.’ Neel merely refused history’s established gender roles by blurring and questioning traditional dichotomy: man as powerful and public, woman as passive and private. In her opinion, men and women were equally capable. “I was in the exhibition The New York Group in 1938 at the ACA Gallery - seven men and I.” she recalls, “They were so embarrassed because I was a woman, but I didn’t feel any different. I had it inside me, but outside, these people ran over me even though I was a much better painter.” Thus Neel sought to break history’s traditional gender roles even before the women’s liberation cultural upheaval. She insisted on the triviality of applying gender roles to art, “When I was in a room working, I wasn’t aware of being a woman artist. I don’t think there’s basically a difference between women’s art and men’s art. I don’t agree with any of that poppycock. It’s either good art or bad art, and that’s it.” And yet, after years of essential obscurity, Neel readily accepted the attention, media and support the feminist movement afforded her.
By looking at asexual human traits when everyone else was still focused on gender, Neel was pioneering and ahead of her time. “I don’t think we should fight each other…” Neel declared, “Both men and women are wretched and it’s often a matter of how much money you have rather than what your sex is.” This speaks to Neel’s overall disapproval of the competitive American capitalist driven system, in which she, like Nochlin, rejected the overall structure and institutions - not just the role prescribed to females. Once again, this was not because Neel wanted men to be placed under these same restrictions. Rather, she felt herself pushed by them and she boldly pushed back. Neel’s method of fighting for equal opportunity was by painting groundbreaking portraits. And when she looked at the history of Western art, she found a glaring inequality between what experiences had been painted. In other words, she found that a large part of being a female had been wholly overlooked. Thus, Alice Neel took up her paintbrush and began to correct the insulting absence of pregnant women in art history.
Margaret Evans Pregnant is of a woman eight months pregnant with twins. The image shows a young pregnant woman seated on a small yellow chair. Evans sits upright, eyes focused straight ahead, hands clutching the chair. Completely nude, her skin encompasses a series of shades, which reveal bathing suit tan lines and spotted legs due to lack of circulation. Placed behind Evans is a mirror that allows the viewer to partially see the back of the chair, her upper back, neck and hair. Yet the reflected image does not appear exactly like Evans, the woman in the mirror looks older and wiser. The floor also acts as a mirror, echoing the chair as it is streaked with yellow shadows. Although the chair has a back, it is visibly uncomfortable for Margaret Evans. It forces her to sit straight and upright, a position that seems quite difficult with a pregnant stomach. The focus of the image is Evans’s bulging stomach as it is positioned in the very center or the canvas and is the brightest part of her body. Although Neel generally liked her sitters to find their own comfortable pose, this painting shows the opposite. Alice Neel, the documentary film, captures Neel painting this portrait. It shows Neel shifting Evans from the sofa to different chairs, from sitting to reclining, from legs crossed to legs open. Further deliberate decisions led to a mirror offstage right and the small, yellow uncomfortable boudoir chair.
The manner in which Neel painted this portrait broke from her customary style of outlining the figure and beginning by painting the head. The documentary further reveals that for this work, she began by painting Evans’s distended belly, building it up in broad circular brushstrokes. By diminishing the importance and additionally, the presence, of the head, Neel’s painting suggests that the body is simply a container. Nancy, Neel’s daughter-in-law, who was often the subject of the painter’s portraits, recalled a conversation in which Neel shared her opinion on late pregnancy, “Your body ceases to be your own. You become a vessel. At a certain point you lose your self-image.” This quote, along with the film, helps us understand the portrait of Margaret Evans better from learning how Neel viewed pregnancy. What also fascinated Neel about pregnant nudes were the physical alterations. It is possible that this fact alone describes the deviant starting point of this portrait. As Carolyn Carr pointed out, “Neel relished every detail of the physical transformation of the topography of the female body.” Thus Neel viewed pregnancy as depleting and self-sacrificing in one respect, but also physically mesmerizing in another. Not one to hide the truth, Neel illustrates these experiences in both the method and final product of Margaret Evans Pregnant.
The mirror behind Evans has created considerable speculations from observers and critics, yet Neel’s own motive for this section of the painting remains unknown. “It could represent,” Jeremy Lewison hypothesizes, “her identification - presumably unconscious - with the sitter. This might also explain why Evans looks considerably older in the mirror. The mirrored image is an uncanny double of the sitter and the artist, presaging older age.” Equally plausible is Lewison’s alternative reading,
Given that many of Neel’s previous and later works were extremely autobiographical, it is plausible that she figuratively included a slight reflection of herself in the mirror. Overall, although the inclusion of the mirror was a deliberate choice of Neel’s, it will most likely remain ambiguous.
In addition to the purposeful choice of pose and chair, Evans’ resulting unease is most likely intentional as well. Evans herself claims that Neel uncovered some unconscious feeling of “inner anxiety I was having that I wasn’t aware of”. A more experienced mother than Evans, it is possible that Neel projected on Evans her own recollected experience of pregnancy. This practice of injecting autobiographical details onto women sitters is similar to what occurred in Linda Nochlin and Daisy. Moreover, the unease visible in this painting echoes that of Daisy. Whereas Daisy’s youthful uneasiness made it difficult to stay still for long sittings, Evans was in her eight month of pregnancy with twins. What’s more, it can be assumed that both sitting down and rising from this small uncomfortable chair was a difficult task. In both instances, Neel used this unease to further understand her sitters and uncover their inner emotions. By pulling out sentiments that were otherwise not apparent, Neel truly captured what is what like to be a woman, both as a child and when pregnant with a child. Bauer added a noteworthy comment to this topic as she noticed that Neel respects the integrity of each women’s experience of pregnancy, “she does not generalize, exploit or romanticize the condition.” In light of the larger context of a ‘humanist Neel’ who sought to capture the zeitgeist of the day, it underlines the fact that each and every human has a different experience despite living in the same era and even the same city.
When Neel learned that Evans was pregnant, she immediately sought her out and persuaded her to pose. Margaret was a wife of Neel’s friend, landscape painter John Evans. Rather than depicting a feminist writer or prominent figure, what distinguishes this portrait is how it was painted and what it represents. Pregnancy, for Neel, was a basic fact of life. In the mid 60s, a number of females in her life become pregnant and she began this series of variations on the theme of nude. She painted her earliest, Couple on a Train in 1930, and subsequently Pregnant Maria (1964), Pregnant Julie and Algis (1967), Betty Homitzky (1968) and Pregnant Woman (1971). Yet of all these works, Margaret Evans Pregnant is the only full frontal pregnant nude ever painted by Neel. When asked why she painted pregnant nudes, Neel replied,
The fact that Neel chose ‘basic facts of life’ as worthy of portraits is what makes this series remarkable. In addition to distinguishing her from other painters and artists, this truly made Neel a humanist as she audaciously inserted a part of life that had been previously ignored into art history’s lexicon.
Neel’s pursuit to paint the most real and honest human experiences is best shown by her pregnant nudes such as Margaret Evans. Neel’s quote speaks once more to the historic representations of women as sexual ‘Olympia-like’ objects of men’s gaze. Neel breaks this mold by honestly showing what is was like to experience pregnancy, highlighting rather than hiding the morphing physical changes and emotional anxiety. In an exhibition catalog, Ann Temkin writes that the pregnant nude allowed Neel to
Temkin’s quote illuminates the unforgiving modern attitude towards female sexuality, one that excludes the true experience of being a woman and demeans females on both sides of the dichotomy. Neel’s pregnant nudes are neither ‘Madonnas’ nor whores. They are real, everyday women who one sees in the grocery store, movie theater and parking lot - but who are incongruously absent in art. By depicting this part of life in her paintings, Neel is forcing us to publically recognize this part of life by wrangling it out of the private realm.
Bauer asserts that the series of pregnant women can be seen as a metaphor of Neel’s own personal growth and development during this period, when following twenty years of relative obscurity she began to be embraced by the art world. Thus she views the pregnant portraits as symbols of this fruitful time of great potential and possibilities. Although plausible, this seems to stretch her subject matter to greater importance than she intended. More likely, the pregnant women in Neel’s life inspired her and reminded her of an under-represented part of woman’s life. Another possible way to read this painting is that it is a mirror of Neel’s own experience with pregnancy. A woman who lost one child and gave up another, there is no doubt of the anxiety Neel encountered. Furthermore, as established, Neel felt pulled by the tension between being a mother and a painter. By painting an apprehensive portrait of a mother literally stretched to hold her twins, Neel perhaps autobiographically shared with us how it felt to be expecting a child at the same time as having a career.
This bright portrait of two individuals is quizzical and ambiguous. On the left is Ritta Redd, who sits timidly behind the more dominant Jackie Curtis. Redd’s blond curls and similarly hued shirt work to frame his innocent boyish face. One visible hand rests softly on the right knee. Coming out from the bottom of worn blue jeans are Redd’s sheepishly positioned feet. While the left foot awkwardly pigeon-toes inward, the left is pushed in and back by Curtis’s aggressive leg. The result is a clumsy position that further relates Redd’s timidity. Conversely, Curtis is both bold and strong. In addition to being physically larger, the body is the center and focus point of the painting. Wig-like red hair is further exaggerated by thick red lipstick and heavy blue eye shadow. While Redd’s face seems youthful and soft, Curtis’s chunky features and large contrasts seem almost mask-like. Particularly interesting are Curtis’s hands. The right, long and graceful, differs greatly from the bony and masculine left one. Nevertheless, both show seemingly multiple layers of red nail polish, which serves to echo the burnt red tresses. Furthermore, Curtis’s exposed legs tell a story of their own. The right one is placed firmly in the nearest foreground while the left pushes backwards to touch Redd. What’s more, a small hole on in the right foot’s stocking reveals the same red nail polish covering Curtis’s right big toe.
Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd visually appear to be a heterosexual couple yet the lines between female and male are blurred. Jackie, an androgynous name, appears masculine and brave, although dressed in drag. Redd, who ‘wears the paints’ in this painting, is depicted as smaller and softer. The unfinished grey background that surrounds this couple places them in a metaphoric ‘gray zone’ in which gender categories are unclear. Clothing and traditional gestures are no longer hints that help us determine the subjects’ biological sex. To Pamela Allara, in Jackie Curtis and Rita Redd, “gender is performed.” Hence the two are acting out identities rather than expressing the way they were naturally born. Allara understands this portrait by looking at the feet, reading the togetherness as a duality of their genders where the subjects are both male and female. In Pheobe Hoban’s recent book The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, she labels these body parts as “prurient feet,” thereby marking them with an unwholesome, immoderate and even sexual undertone. Thus Neel succeeded in capturing the sexual nuances of this couple, and for lack of a better saying, ‘down to their toes.’ By balancing the gender identities and blurring the traditional hints, Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd blurs historically established lines between human biological sexes.
Jackie Curtis (1947-1985) was a “Warhol superstar,” a playwright, poet, cabaret singer and theater director. Born John Holder Curtis Jr., he invented the “glam rock” look of wearing glitter around his eyes and retro thrift-shop female fashions. His companion, Ritta Redd, was not a celebrity although he appeared in several films with Curtis. In an exhibition catalog essay for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Richard Flood offers an amusing description of this painting using classic literary characters and real life analogies. “Huddled together like Hansel and Gretel in the presence of the witch,” Flood writes, “these two boys with transgendered dreams sit as if awaiting a court verdict.”  Using other well-known tropes, Flood unpacks the subjects’ identities, “Jackie’s shoulder pads hint at an idealized Hollywood pantheon of femme fatales… Redd is a little more complicated. Part Tom Sawyer and part Little Lord Fauntleroy, he is the personification of knowing innocence. Even his awkwardly introverted feet seem oddly available to the advance of Jackie’s insinuatingly positioned right foot, with its open-toed high heel and torn black stocking revealing a curiously aggressive big toe.” In addition to being witty, these comparisons allow us to understand Curtis and Redd in a greater context as characters as well as individuals, as was characteristic of Neel’s work. Flood sums this up by writing, “It is one of those wonderful pictures by Neel that somehow gets much bigger than the subject ostensibly being portrayed.” Thus this portrait of two men dressed in unusual outfits and positioned in dubious poses in fact highlights the loftier questions of gender, sexuality and social roles.
Second-wave feminists challenged gender roles as well as the meaning of gender itself. Gender for Neel was always “gender and…” meaning there was something supplementary to this category, that gender itself wasn’t final. She read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex when it was published in 1949 and agreed with the argument that one is not born, but becomes a woman. As de Beauvoir argued, “the body is not a thing, it is a situation.” In viewing Jackie Curtis and Rita Redd, one can see how Neel was of the same opinion. This painting plays with the way people negotiate gender and androgyny but does not go further to suggest a winner, but it does only that. What it does not do is prescribe how each sex ought to act, dress or negotiate power. In this respect, Neel allowed her subjects to be who they are. In the same way that Neel brought pregnant women into the public eye through works such as Margaret Evans Pregnant, Neel captured the experiences of marginalized people such as transvestites and carried them into the realm of high art. Remarkably, on November 11, 2009, this painting was sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale for $165,500,000, three times its highest estimate. This staggering price is evidence of today’s appreciation for Neel’s innovative and daring choices for what constituted art and worthy of being painted.
Neel’s most intrepid and notorious choice of subject matter for a portrait was ironically her self-portrait, a customarily innocuous focus. In 1980, when Neel put her signature style and critical view to work on herself, she once more broke away from the beaten path to produce a shocking painting. Self-Portrait shows Neel in her eightieth year of life, seated in a familiar chair in her studio. She is shown completely naked, with nothing but her glasses, paintbrush and a rag - “her aging body equipped with just the tools of her craft.” Her fluffy white hair reveals her ripe old age, as does the sagging flesh with its countless creases and folds. Seated comfortably yet still upright, Neel’s body is pointed away while her head turns to look straight ahead. The expression on Neel’s face is indiscernible, her eyebrows are raised inquisitively but her eyes and mouth appear almost motionless. It appears as if she is bored, tired or intensely concentrating. Her left hand hangs limply as it lets the rag dangle freely. It is interesting to note that this is the brightest white in the painting. In her right hand she holds her paintbrush erect, a motion that her raised right toe directly mirrors. The background and foreground, unfinished, show blocks of three primary colors, blue, yellow and green.
This work, completed in 1980, was incomparable for its time. Alice Neel always said that the closest she ever came to a self-portrait was the image of an empty chair by an apartment window. Eventually, at the age of seventy-five, she begin painting this piece, but soon abandoned it. To put it differently, she had been painting for over half a century though had yet to turn her gaze on herself. Encourage by her son Richard, she returned to this piece once more in 1980 when she was invited to be part of an exhibition of self-portraits at Harold Reed Gallery in New York. Secondly, self-portrait paintings were a genre that was traditionally avoided by women. And lastly, very few precedents for naked female self-portraits exist. Yet the combination of these three aspects only begins to explain the level of attention this painting garnered. Unlike her previous work, this painting is a bolder and more intense challenge to the historical convention of idealized femininity. Neel essentially depicted herself as the opposite of a pinup girl. With indelicate strokes and patches of green and red, she frankly painted her sagging breasts and lumpy belly for everyone to see. Moreover, we know that this is a reliable representation because she painted herself in the mirror. Neel, a left-handed painter, holds the brush in her right hand in the painting, the mirror image of herself.
“Frightful isn’t it?” she told Ted Castle, “I love it.” Neel continued, in her customary witty manner, “At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.” By choosing as the subject of her art something even she claims as indecent truly shows how unconventional Alice Neel was. Mary Garrard has a different reading of the painting in which she moves beyond the single innovative aspects to the overall wonder of one work of art being able to accomplish so much,
The way this piece really encapsulates so much of what Neel set out to accomplish is, as Gerrard noted, quite extraordinary. This paper has already established the concept of being unique with art history as shown by the theme of pregnant nudes. What remains unaddressed is being ‘in dialogue’ with art history. Rather than just having a one-way conversation and painting unique portraits, Neel participated in an exchange of ideas with art history, borrowing information from past works and in turn, offering her own suggestions. Nevertheless, Gerrard is truly spot-on. It is as if Neel, through this painting, is saying, or rather yelling multiple messages to art history, “Women can also be artists! Women can paint self-portraits! Elderly women depicted nude can be considered art! I’m going to do it all!”
An anecdote from Carolyn Carr, Deputy Director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is particularly useful in highlighting how groundbreaking the painting continues to be. “When I would do lectures,” Carr recalls, “I’d start with [the Portrait Gallery’s portrait of] George Washington and end with Alice. There was always a gasp when she came on the screen. Honestly because everything is sagging - but lively and energetic... That is her last, or nearly her last, painting that sort of recognizes the most powerful elements of her style, as evident in her 70’s.” The audience’s gasp of astonishment is raw proof of how the image of a naked elderly female is still not comfortably accepted. Moreover, it is still not widespread in art history. Thus, what Neel created in 1980 was so innovative that it remains fresh - almost too fresh - over thirty years later.
To critics, Neel was a difficult target to hit. Throughout her career, she attracted countless critical reviews, some flattering and some not. Yet many who reviewed Neel could not understand her work or her purpose and thus darted around her, missing the bull’s-eye. An unknown journalist for the New York Times wrote “Alice Neel’s portraits… strike somewhere between benevolent caricature and expressionism as a vehicle for personal release. But you don’t have to know exactly what Alice Neel’s target is to know that she is right on.” Though this critic tried to intellectually read Neel’s paintings, he got caught on her lack of total realism. Hilton Kramer, also writing for the New York Times, offered a backhanded compliment in his critique
Kramer effectively pried deeper than his colleague above, yet he too stumbled to understand why Neel’s pictures portrayed stress, were course or lacking delicacy of nuance. It is more a matter of personal opinion if Neel’s work is to be considered ‘fine art,’ but it remains undeniable that the raw emotions her works describe are often unforgettable. In addition to certain critics not being able to comprehend Neel, others tried too hard to identify her within strict categories or confines of art.
Neel’s character and work was unique and almost fluid in the way that she could not be tied down into one movement or theme. Garrard believed she fully grasped Neel’s work when she explained, “The theme of all her portraits is the self and its defenses, the self and its dreams.” To condense Neel’s portraits into three categories is to completely disregard many aspects of her work. Yes, it may be true that her portraits speak to the themes of the self, its defenses and its dreams, but this by no means encapsulates all themes portrayed in Alice Neel’s portraits. Others commented on Neel’s idiosyncrasies, which arguably capture her true spirit and intentions better than the professional art critics ever did. Jack Baur, retired director of the Whitney Museum, wrote a witty poem to describe his good friend Alice and her work, “Ah! What innocent blue eyes, soft as violets, sharp as knives, Dissecting all our private lives.” What Baur caught in this one sentence is so telling of Neel, her facade and her method of painting. Baur explains how Neel would appear benevolent and harmless. Henry Hope, who once sat for a portrait by Neel, provides us with insight into the truth of this claim. He describes Neel as she was later in her life, “Plump, exuding vitality and good spirits, she gives the impression of a happy, slightly zany grandmother, a sort of Julia Child, rambling on about painting instead of cooking.” Thus soft as violets is an appropriate and fitting description. Yet when Neel began to examine her sitters, her eyes became ‘sharp as knives’ because she would figuratively cut through the skin and into the inner emotions of her ‘victims’. These different accounts of Neel’s life and work show the way in which her personality and character were inseparable from her work. It is therefore not surprising that critics who did not know Neel on a personal level and merely viewed her work could not fully grasp this woman’s paintings.
May Stevens offers an especially astute reading of Alice Neel. “She wasn’t a feminist,” remarks Stevens, “she was an Alice Neelist… She was totally antifeminist and antiwomen, and as far as politically, she knew everybody on the Left.” One of the leaders of the feminist movement, Stevens did not want anything to do with Alice. “She took advantage of the situation and we were proud to have a good artist on our side,” Stevens remembers. Yet she carefully adds, “Alice concentrated on Alice. Everyone knew she wasn’t really a feminist.” It is important to see Alice Neel in this respect because it elucidates her intentions and goals. Neel was not trying to spark a women’s liberation movement - she just wanted to paint. Though Stevens may be mistaken by labeling Neel “totally antifeminist and antiwomen” she is dead right in the creation of the phrase “Neelist.” For Alice Neel really was a woman after her own causes who sought to reform her own world. Neel even admitted this reality in an interview once, “What amazed me was that all of the women critics respect you if you paint your own pussy as a woman’s libber, but they didn’t have any respect for being able to see politically and appraise the third world. So nobody mentioned that I managed to even see beyond my pussy politically, but I thought that was really a good thing.” Thus she reveals the frustration of being cornered into just the feminist movement when in fact she was on quite a different track. “ If they had a little more brains,” Neel added, “they should have given me credit for being able to see not the feminine world, but my own world.” This is yet another example of Neel’s pioneering beliefs and views which were, and perhaps still remain, too fresh to be commonly understood.
Despite becoming very ill in the 1980’s, Neel was honored with more retrospective shows and even solo exhibitions overseas. An important event of 1982 was a dinner hosted by New York City Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion in honor of Neel, during which he showcased the portrait she recently completed of him. Furthermore, Patricia Hills wrote a book titled Alice Neel (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), the first fully illustrated monograph on Neel’s work. It featured Neel’s own account of her life, gathered through interviews. Another key highlight of this period was a larger artist fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts of $25,000. In 1984, she made two guest appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and proved to be a skilled entertainer. Despite chemotherapy treatments, Neel passed away in 1985. A memorial service was held at the Whitney Museum. It was here that Allen Ginsberg gave the first public reading of his poem White Shroud. Numerous obituaries recounted her life. In the October 14th publication, William G. Blair of the New York Times called her “the quintessential bohemian ... [whose] unconventional and intense representational portraits, many painted in her early years, were neglected, even resented, in official art world circles” yet he explained that “in the last decades of her life, the honors that had been denied her came her way.” The critic, Robert Storr described this same account in a different fashion; “This idea of the bohemian as the person who suffers and suffers is one highly stylized, partially true but not entirely true narrative. In her case it was largely true and then she shifted gears and she entered an art world, which had been going on all along that she had not been a part. She hit the big time.” Regardless of how her life was written, Alice Neel will be remembered as one of the most prominent female artists of the twentieth century.
In addition to her personal prominence, Neel’s work stands on its own as a window into life in one of America’s great cities, New York, during the twentieth century. What’s more, her paintings are more than records, but stunning insights into what it felt like to be present in this place at this time - what anxieties and worries people carried with them through the crowded streets and in racing taxis. Despite dealing with emotions, Neel always avoided the sentimental, “I try to paint the scene. A human comedy like Balzac - the past, present, and future interlaced with the levels of society, like Proust. It’s terrible to think that life happens and just goes, disappears. I paint my time using the people as evidence,” Neel wrote, “I believe in art as history. The swirl of the era is what you’re in and what you paint. I love, pity, hate and fear all at once, and try to keep a record.” Neel cleverly extracted the experiences of her sitters and placed them into this framework. We also understand her work as representative of New York City because the emotions she captured provide the daily experience of a varied range of ‘types’, those who were well connected in the social scene and politics to those who were on the margins due to income, race or sexual orientation. What is so impressive is that she didn’t set to paint works that captured humanity; rather, she created hundreds of individual portraits that captured the specific of each person. Hence, Neel collected life in New York City, starting with each individual person. In a speech presenting Neel with the First National Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award in the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter declared,
We honor Alice Neel, who has been painting for more than fifty years, for creating an incomparable visual record of the life of one of America’s great cities, New York. Her pictures have captured the souls of the very old and the very young, of the rich and the poor, of laborers and intellectuals, artists and businessmen, of poets and salesmen, eccentrics and squares. Her portraits are profoundly democratic for she has understood and recorded the psyche of a range of personalities unprecedented in the art of portraiture. The vitality, truth and humanity of her work make her one of America’s great artists.
Just as the revered Carter describes, Neel’s work summarizes more than just individuals in a city. By capturing a cross section of gender, socio-economic standing and profession, Neel’s range of subject matter is representative of the lives of Americans across the country. In order to fully understand this notion, there is no better source than Neel herself. In her personal statement for her exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art, Neel wrote,
“I feel both justified and vindicated that my fifty-year quest to depict the soul and psychology of 20th century man is being seen in this retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The label “American” is especially appropriate since although I have always thought of my work as universal, it yet remains, because of physical and unavoidable reality, an odyssey particularly American. I have always considered the human being the first premise - I feel his condition is a barometer of the era…we must trot back to the human size and human feelings.
The “physical and unavoidable reality” to which Neel refers is that fact that her paintings were of the citizens of the United States. And while the emotions depicted may be symbolically universal, they are quite literally American.
Moreover, Neel’s portraits from the 1970’s are artifacts of their era. In a 1976 issue of New York Magazine, novelist Tom Wolfe coined the 70’s as the ‘Me Decade.’ This label describes how the general attitude of Americans was moving away from the communitarian ideology of the 60’s and towards the atomized individualism of the 70’s. In painting pictures of individuals, Neel answered this call for people to focus on themselves. Neel’s portraits are windows into this self-centered mindset as each one is actually a small shrine to the individual sitter. Is not the act of getting a portrait painted of yourself, whether you commissioned it or not, in essence narcissistic? Furthermore, Wolfe’s article used the ‘Me’ fascination to understand women’s liberation, which he believed was best explained in a single slogan from a hair-dye add, “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a - !” (You have only to fill in the blank.) This formula, he wrote, accounts for much of the popularity of the women’s liberation movement. The article asserts,
While Wolfe observed the change of women’s experience from ordinary to dramatic and worthy of analysis, Neel was in fact doing this and leading the crusade. Her paintings of women acted as instruments that displayed honest accounts of women’s experiences. The style is also important, as Neel purposely chose to emphasize or omit certain characteristics in order to bring out the ‘drama’ of each woman who sat for her. What’s more, the black outline she adopted in the 70’s further emphasized the individual and made him or her stand out even more. In turn, these striking paintings sparked viewers to react in just the way Wolfe observed - to analyze, agonize over and draw conclusions from the women’s experience - and most importantly, to take women seriously.
In referring to her lifelong pursuit as “an odyssey particularly American,” Neel taps into a classic American trope of overcoming oppression. A female realist painter in a male dominated world, Neel reflected the twentieth century from a woman’s point of view. A realist portrait painter in a time when abstract impressionism was popular and sought after, Neel remained steadfast to her style despite the attention she could have gained by switching. Having endured the suffering and deprivation of both situations, Neel places herself among the likes of those famously beaten down: Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Huckleberry Finn and even Willy Loman. Yet, by the end of her life, Neel broke out of her repression. By becoming recognized in the art world as a strong, female painter, Neel achieved the ‘American Dream’ and taken as a whole, Neel’s life and work remind us that it was not cities or countries that created this dream and initiated social change in America, but individuals.
I am physiologically involved and believe no matter how much we are overcome by our own advertising and commodities, man himself makes the world. - Alice Neel, late 1970’s
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