PRINT October 1983

Alice Neel

In this week’s newsletter, the editors feature a conversation between painter Alice Neel and novelist Ted Castle from the October 1983 issue of Artforum. “Staged Mothers,” Ara Osterweil’s essay on the artist, appears in the current issue to mark the occasion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Alice Neel: People Come First,” on view through August 1.

A year before her death in 1984, Alice Neel sat with novelist Ted Castle for a long, rollicking conversation. By that time, her cataracts had hampered her ability to paint, but they had done nothing to dampen her mind or spirit. Neel’s humor and candor are both on terrific display, as she shares her stories, opinions, and politics with Castle. She remembers meeting critic Hilton Kramer and chiding him for his wrong opinion of her drawing skills, though she openly admits that in the first portrait she did of Frank O’Hara, which the poet did not like, “he looks like a falcon.” She goes on to call Simone de Beauvoir a fool, Goya a genius, and Fairfield Porter “a mild dish” and confesses that she doesn’t really relate to any other artists of her time. About Alex Katz, she says, “His pictures are too big and too empty. Aren’t people more complex than that?” This conversation, a portrait of Neel of sorts, indeed proves just how complex, how herself, Neel was.

—The Editors

TC: The question this: can anything be “said” in paint, better than it can be said in words? Everyone answers “yes.” That is, of course, why we have “art.” But the problem pursues us. Not only is it not only linguistic, but it is also ideological. Alice Neel, who was born in A.D. 1900, answers this problem in paint. But she doesn’t answer it only in terms of paint, as some of her successors have been more or less content to do. I use the word “content” in its normal, conventional sense in which people are generally permitted to use language. But what happens when normal language is prohibited? What happens when famous, infamous, and unknown people are committed to insane asylums for what may often be referred to as “alcoholism” or “insanity”? Usually a number of lawsuits arise, and some people “get out” and some people “rot there.” Are these people really nuts, or are they victims? Our society is too gigantic to conclude this little problem to anybody’s satisfaction. This is because the insurance companies have no interest in it. The idea of justice is inhuman.

Alice Neel is a passionate woman with a romantic idea—she thinks people ought to be better than they are. But she is a person who, like all of us, was taught to behave or shut up. She shut up and put up. What she put up is a long series of portraits of people and human situations which, very precisely, defied description because at the time these pictures were made, nobody was permitted to talk about any such thing.

This position on the apparently inoffensive work of Alice Neel might be a difficult position to defend it we did not have behind us a general awareness of the indefensible morality, I should say moralities, that have given rise to illegal war and legalized crime. Years ago, such thoughts were unthinkable. Was it really Lenin who said that the revolution takes place when the extraordinary becomes ordinary? I don’t know, but whoever said it was right. The work of Alice Neel strikes us as portraying the truth of the individual, whereas the truth is that she has been attempting all along to portray the truth of our society. Shall I put words to this truth? Would I get busted for the computerized equivalent of sedition if I did? I don’t care to find out. Alice Neel has done the work of a whole generation of artists who were afraid for their lives as artists if they were to portray the actual conditions of society. Amidst all the babble that photography, like Prometheus, had stolen the sacred function of art—representation—there arose the essential cowardice of artists only slightly less famous than Picasso. The phenomenon is hardly terminated, and words are not exempt from censure. Alice Neel has said it and continues to say it for us in all her pictures.

In the May 1983 issue of Art Monthly (London) the editor provided us with what he called an aide memoire concerning the censure of art in the “free world”:

50 YEARS AGO. On May 22 the Rental Manager, accompanied by 12 guards, called Diego Rivera down from the scaffold in front of his mural in the Rockefeller Centre’s RCA building (the mural was still unfinished), gave him the $14,000 still owing to him, and handed him a notice of dismissal. The mural, 63’ x 17’, was immediately covered with tarpaper and a wooden screen. Rivera had on May Day painted a small portrait of Lenin in the centre of the mural. His original sketches had left a space for ‘a great leader’. Nelson Rockefeller asked him to substitute ‘the face of some unknown man’ for Lenin’s face, but while Rivera offered to balance Lenin with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, he refused to delete Lenin. The mural was later chipped away and one by José Maria Sert was substituted.

Among the crimes with which humankind entertain ourselves every day, this account seems to be simply an excursion of commerce. Well, I didn’t like your thing, so here’s your pay and get out, okay? Quite frequently, this kind of thing is done completely without any compensation. A few months ago, I was asked to interview old Alice Neel. This is what Alice and I came up with.

AN: Now when you told me you didn’t like Frank O’Hara’s. . . .

TC: I never said I didn’t like it, I said a friend of mine said Frank didn’t like the picture you did of him.

AN: Well, I understand if it was the first one, his not liking it; you know why? I’ll tell you what is wrong with it. As the Spanish say it’s too perfilada, it’s too hatchet-faced. He was snubby-faced. In that picture he looks like a falcon. There are some nice things about it, the lilacs I think are nice, and in the other one I did of him the lilacs are dead. I did his mouth first and his teeth looked like tombstones. I did it in one day, and when he saw it he said, “Oh my God, those freckles,” on his forehead, but he said, “The fauves went that far.” He had the Spanish show on at the Museum of Modern Art then, I couldn’t bear it, because the artists took brand new canvases and slashed them. Maybe it was a reaction to what they thought was a rich country. They took these great canvases and just slashed holes in them. But I had had my own paintings slashed up only a few years before.

TC: That must have affected you badly.

AN: Oh, that was horrible! You see that watercolor over there? I lost about three hundred of that quality and about sixty paintings were all just cut beyond recognition. It was done by this dope addict sailor I was living with at the time.

TC: I noticed in the catalogue of the 1975 show of your work at the Georgia Museum there are very few paintings from the period 1947 to 1958 or so. Did you paint very little then?

AN: I don’t know. It may just be that some of them didn’t get in there. I always kept painting, only some years I did much more than in others. In 1933 I did an awful lot. But an awful lot of them got cut up. Rebecca West says that civilization despises women as a group but individually they can fall in love with them and even worship them.

TC: You think it’s true that male society despises women?

AN: Well, it’s an obvious fact that women were second-class citizens, but you didn’t have to be that. I fought that, but in a subterranean way. I never fought right out on the barricades although I’ve always been a women’s libber. I was just born like that, I was that way back in the ’30s before there was any women’s lib.

TC: Of course there was women’s lib back in 1890.

AN: But I wasn’t born then. They got the vote I think in ’20, but you know, the year before that they marched in Washington and the men spat in their faces and burned their arms with lighted cigars. And of course the Constitution said that women, idiots, and Indians could not vote.

TC: It was amended, I think.

AN: They haven’t even passed ERA yet.

TC: Everyone seems to be of the conviction that they won’t, at least not now.

AN: You know who keeps it from getting passed? Recalcitrant women. They feel that they will please men more by fighting it. You see, what I realized was this. I gave a doctoral address at Moore College of Art [in Philadelphia] in 1971 in which I quoted Freud when he asked, “What do they want?”

TC: What was he talking about?

AN: It’s just like the slave, he doesn’t know what he wants until he has his freedom; so it is with women. I grew up long enough ago that I realized that you have to please men. You want to please men, of course, because you’re a girl and you want boyfriends and all that.

TC: Men have to please women, too.

AN: Of course. I learned that later. Women can be a frightful burden—I think women are lethal. I would go to a little girl’s house and I would know very well that I would have to please the boss of the house which was usually the father. However, my own house was not bossed by the father, my mother was the real head-of-the-house type, she was smarter and she was just the boss. My father didn’t even care to be boss. He was a nice philosophic person.

TC: Did you have a lot of conversations with him?

AN: I was more interested in my mother because she was brighter, she knew more and she was quicker on the draw.

I never thought there was much difference between me and men. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir said she never inherited the world because it was a man’s world. She’s a fool! If she didn’t inherit the world, what did she inherit? There was nothing else to inherit. Even though it was a man’s world women were there and they had some say.

TC: In many cases women are very important in influencing men to do various things.

AN: Of course, because they were pushed down. Guess what? Rebecca West, who just died, when she was 20 and H. G. Wells was 46 they fell in love. He was married. She had a child with him, a boy, I forget what he is now, and he supported it for a while and helped support her, and then they separated. Is he as good as she is? I always thought he was sort of science fiction. You know what Lenin said about Wells? What a bourgeois! And you know what Lenin said about Shaw? A good man fallen among Fabians! Isn’t that wonderful.

TC: Shaw was always with crazy people.

AN: Yes he was. Just like poor Napoleon—when he crowned himself there wasn’t anything else for him to do. I don’t admire him; I admire Goya’s pictures of “The Disasters of War.”

TC: I do too. I saw them in the Prado once and I was moved to tears.

AN: What do you think of Goya, he’s a genius! Now you see, when Simone de Beauvoir said that she couldn’t identify herself with any writer, not even with that wonderful Edward Gibbon. Do you like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall [of the Roman Empire]? I think it’s beautifully written. But I wasn’t like Simone de Beauvoir. I could think about Goya and love him or Edvard Munch or any of the other ones I liked, I didn’t care what they were, men or not. I don’t think art specifically has sex either.

TC: Who else did you like?

AN: Goya, Velázquez, Munch, I liked Oskar Kokoschka, too, although I think Munch is more, and who else? There was a pen-and-ink man, a Spanish man who did great vignettes.

TC: I notice in reading about you that you don’t say that so-and-so influenced you very much.

AN: I developed my own way. I’m an intellectual also. I know all the theory of everything, but when I paint I don’t think of anything except the subject and me. I hate pale reflections of other people. What do you think of Fairfield Porter? To me he’s a mild dish. And all the talking on his part won’t change it. Just like I don’t like Neil Welliver’s things. They’re frightful. In Time magazine Robert Hughes reviewed Welliver without mentioning photographs. He talks about his oil sketches, but it has always looked to me as if he works from photographs. But Americans will love him. Americans love anything that conforms and is just straight like that and everyone the same. Every detail perfect. It comes from the photograph, not the sketch. Awful, awful.

TC: Do you make sketeches yourself?

AN: I’ll tell you what I used to do. You see, I did all the neighborhoods of New York for the WPA. I would go out in the street and make a little sketch and just write the names of the colors in it and then go home and paint it from memory. I did a huge body of work.

TC: We don’t seem to have much that left; what happened to them?

AN: In 1943 the WPA was disbanded and they took the canvases they had and offered them for sale. I bought about ten of them back. Then they took thousands of paintings and sold them as “oiled canvas” to wrap pipes. When I showed my slide lecture to you I showed you one of 107th Street and Broadway [where Neel has lived since 1962].

My cataracts are so bad that for me to work now is just heroic. When Rebecca West wrote This Real Night, the sequel to The Fountain Overflows, she said the sequel was not nearly as good because her cataracts were bothering her so badly. She wrote it in 1977, when she was 85. She was eight years older than I am, and I’m 83 now and I already have them. I paint, but then I can’t see for hours. It’s as though there’s a misty paper between you and me. My right eye is worse, but my left eye fatigues more because it works a little more. It makes me take endless naps and it makes me dread painting, whereas I always loved to paint. Still, I did that woman in the red blouse—you wouldn’t know that I couldn’t see there, would you?

TC: Not at all.

AN: I think the best thing in it is the red blouse, and the fact that she looks six feet tall.

TC: Who is that?

AN: Well, her name is Catherine Jordan and she’s the director of that place in Minneapolis, the WARM Gallery, a women’s gallery. I gave a lecture out there and those women had the most frightful murals on the wall! Nothing excuses bad art. When I gave the doctoral address at Moore College I told them that they have a great opportunity.

But also I’ve always acted normal. I had two sons and I always made the meals and acted normal. I didn’t make them do all the dishes or do those ordinary things of women’s lib, I didn’t care about that. But I did care about the fact that I was free to do as I damned pleased on canvas and also spit in the eye of critics, although I paid heavily for that.

TC: I bet you did because critics can be quite vundictive if they don’t like you.

AN: I went to the Whitney Museum one night and Hilton Kramer was there and he had criticized a painting of mine. He said that when it came to the face there was nobody like me, that I hit it with a hammer blow, but then he said, “Too bad she can’t draw.” And you know, I’m a terrific drawer, I draw like mad. So I met him at the Whitney and I said, “You must hate your mother—I’m a great draftsman, so how could you say that? Now you’re going to have a real shot at me because I’m going to have a show here at the Whitney.” And he took it, you know. The funny thing is the A.C.A Gallery had said I was one of those esthetes when I had shows there, but Kramer said I just painted for the hoi polloi and they loved it, but that anybody that knew anything about art hated it. He gave me a frightful review. Then they had to let that other man, James Mellow, review it because so many people had objected to Hilton’s. He gave me a better review but still he didn’t know what I was about.

What do you think of Alex Katz?

TC: I liked his big billboards in Times Square.

AN: He is more suited to that, but his pictures are too big and too empty. Aren’t people more complex than that?

TC: Who do you identify with of the artists around now?

AN: Nobody.

TC: I thought so.

AN: Who should I?

TC: I didn’t think you would.

AN: You could tell me what more I could do with this [a painting of her granddaughter Olivia and her boyfriend Joe].

TC: I don’t know. You often leave true canvas kind of blank in back anyway.

AN: Yeah, that’s the way I’m going to leave this. Maybe I should put an orange background and then people would look at it.

TC: Maybe, I don’t know.

AN: I put in little lines to show where they were sitting and it spoiled it because I like that tower effect. In these stormy days when we’re going to get destroyed by nuclear stuff, isn’t it nice to see a couple of young lovers?

TC: It’s beautiful.

AN: When they were sitting they had to take time out to kiss each other and I would very carefully not look.

TC: Sometimes you talk about zeitgeist.

AN: Yes I do. It changes all the time.

TC: What’s happening now? What’s the zeitgeist of the time?

AN: You know what it is—the whole 20th century has been a struggle between communism and capitalism. It’s now reaching its peak.

TC: Who’s winning?

AN: Nobody may win. They may just destroy the human race. Anyway there is no winning anymore! I later painted Linus Pauling, but sometime in the ’50s I went to hear him in Queens and he came in with his arms up and he said, “I love life! But we’re not going to have it long because war is completely outmoded. We have enough to kill all the Russians and they have enough to kill all of us. It’s stupid to add any more to our stockpile.” This was in 1950, mind you. And then I heard Billy Graham the other night. My twin grandchildren, who are 12, came here, and we all had dinner. We bought roast chickens and Nancy [their mother and Neel’s assistant] made a salad and we had ice cream and cookies and we put on Billy Graham for dessert. And after Billy Graham finished they got up, they were going to hit the sawdust trail, they walked toward the television. Their mother couldn’t bear that. She’s a Unitarian, but I thought it was great. He had absolutely convinced them to come to Christ.

TC: Incredible.

AN: He now is a positive force. You have to be semi-moronic to believe all that—he told about Noah living to 120, tending all the animals and everything, but just the same he’s for peace and for the end of nuclear power. Of course he has idiots get up there and sing and tell how they’ve been converted. This time he was very much in favor of teenagers. He quoted something that sounded like it was out of the daily paper and guess who it was? Plato. Saying that teenagers are impossible they have no respect, no responsibility. And also John Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath. In the ’30s you didn’t have to be a Communist but you had to be a fellow traveler to be published and he wrote that great book. Then he lived to write The Short Reign of Pippin IV, one of the worst books ever written! And he lived to rejoice that his son was fighting in Vietnam—he became an idiot. It’s been said that there never could be a Depression like the first one because no human beings could bear it. But human beings can bear anything. Dostoevski said that man is the animal that can get used to anything. I love that!

In the ’60s, that was the youth revolt. I knew they never would get anywhere, although they did get somewhere maybe. . . .

TC: We did get somewhere.

AN: They wrecked the dean’s office up here at Columbia and at night, at twelve o’clock or so, you’d hear sounds in the street that you hadn’t heard before, which were the hooves of the horses of the mounted police with their helmets coming back from beating up students at Columbia. That was when Fred Hampton was killed in Chicago. I was identified with the Black Panthers, I used to give them money, so they sent me an invitation to see a movie about Fred Hampton across the street (although I had to pay $5). Had I been Fred Hampton I would have realized that if I talked like that and I was a minority I would get killed. They said it was a shoot-out with them but it wasn’t—all the bullets were from the police, they just went there and murdered them in cold blood, in their beds. The whites are afraid of blacks.

TC: That’s right.

AN: I often went out with blacks and I’d tell them, it’s not my fault I’m white. I painted James Farmer right in this room in ’65, at the time when he was marching in Mississippi, and he was getting letters from Malcolm X who was then in some foreign country. He said, “I have found that there are some good white people.” I heard Malcolm X. I went by myself to some place on Broadway and I was one of the few white people there. This old white man got up. He said that this big left-wing hero, an organizer in Boston who was shot in the Easter Rebellion, was approached by a policeman in Boston who said, “I don’t see why you fight for these people, these garment workers, they’re not your people”—because this man was Irish, and these people were Jewish. And he said, “Whoever is oppressed, I belong to the race of that person.” So Malcolm X said, “Well, it’s all right for you to say that but I can’t say that.” And a woman got up and said, “I never did anything against the black race,” and he said, “Lady, I’m sure you never did anything wrong but I can tell you that had you been black your life would have been much harder.” And of course he was right, and he really roused those people up. They shouldn’t have shot him like that. What he should have done, the minute they firebombed his house he should have grabbed whatever he could grab in his hand and left. But he didn’t, and they killed him about two weeks later. Who do you think shot Luther King?

TC: I don’t know.

AN: Did you see that King documentary?

TC: Yes.

AN: Remember when he said the one thing you can’t be afraid of is being killed?

TC: Right before he was shot.

AN: The night that they shot Martin Luther King, the school board of the City of New York came here with four or five people and they told me that they would take me to their banquet at the Waldorf if I would entertain these people and show them work and everything. So I went to the Waldorf where I realized that to be a teacher must be a frightful thing. There were hundreds of teachers there and they tied their knives and forks to balloons and it made them completely happy when the balloons took their silverware up to the ceiling. I had finished my dinner and I got bored so I left and went outside. I saw a black woman in the street and she was crying, and I said, “Why are you crying?” She said, “They just shot Martin Luther King.”

I have a show in Berlin right now; I have nine pictures there that show early revolution in this country, Nazis murdering Jews, and the others are of labor leaders. I didn’t send my picture of Gus Hall [general secretary of the Communist Party, U.S.A.]; I just did him recently.

Now the zeitgeist in the ’70s, I didn’t know what it was about until I painted that picture of my son, where the corporation has made him a victim. He used to go to work at seven in the morning and he would stay till eight or nine at night and there was such internecine strife. He had a big job. There were two of them, one of whom would succeed when the rather old man left. Although my son is a good lawyer, he is not very aggressive. He told me that sometimes he would come up with a great solution to a problem and then he would find it in the wastebasket. This other guy would fix it so it was never turned in. The ’70s was the era when these aspiring young men were being victimized by the corporations. I never knew what the ’70s was about till I painted that portrait. Now for the ’80s I think it is the shadow of nuclear war, but I don’t know.

TC: We haven't experienced it very much yet.

AN: We’ll only experience it once. I said to my other son, who is a radiologist up in Vermont, at least you’re in a safer place. He said, “Don’t be silly—if it hit New York it would be up here within a week. There is no such thing as safety.” Vermont is very advanced. When I go to see him I take the plane to Burlington, which is about an hour from his house, and Burlington has a socialist mayor. And all the doctors in Vermont, including the A.M.A., are against the bomb. Even Hartley, my son, who has no political consciousness. In fact he once said, “What good would it be to be rich if there were no poor?” Isn’t that a frightfully old-fashioned remark?

TC: Very 19th century.

Where is art going today? Shall I tell you where? Nowhere. Look at this catalogue. This guy is genuine because he’s been doing it a long time and his greatest characteristic is half-inch-thick paint. But there’s not much in there that’s great. There’s one nude. It’s Matisse-y, but it’s good.

TC: Leon Kossloff—I don’t know his work.

AN: The paintings are not very bright, they look as though he has cataracts. He’s just the opposite of Alex Katz, who wants everything to shine and glitter.

TC: You think art is going nowhere, huh?

AN: What do you think of Julian Schnabel? I think he’s better than Kossoff.

TC: I think Julian’s a good artist.

AN: I like his work but I don’t think he’s a very good artist. But I think he makes up for it with tricks. Did you see my self-portrait in the Aldrich catalogue [for “Homo Sapiens: The Many Images,” at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Conn., 1982]

TC: Yes.

AN: Frightful isn’t it?

TC: I love it.

AN: At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.

TC: How come you never did self-portraits through the years?

AN: Because I always despised myself.

TC: You didn’t like the way you looked?

AN: I hate the way I looked! I don’t look like I am! I look like a very sissy—I was a very pretty girl and I liked to use that with the boys, but I wasn’t like me. My spirit looked nothing like my body. By the time I got that old I could reveal . . . nobody thinks of being sorry for that wretch . . . but I never had any arches in my feet. My feet hurt me all my life and I never had any comfort until at 58 I got these molded shoes and they saved my feet. In my self-portrait I showed that I have a prehensile toe—I was just an ape a while ago, hanging on to a tree—and then I liked to put the flesh dropping off my bones, and the reason my cheeks got so pink was that it was so hard for me to paint that, I almost killed myself painting it.

TC: Were you using a mirror?

AN: Yes, that mirror right there. I first began it in ’75, when I had the big show in Georgia.

In the book [Alice Neel, to be published by Abrams this fall] I describe a wonderful nervous breakdown—frightful!—I had in 1930. It lasted for one solid year; it was not an ordinary breakdown. I always wanted to write something called “Nervous Breakdown” or “Asylum,” because I read books about that and to me they were just pap—well, I write it in this book.

I could paint a picture and call it “Cataracts” and just have it blue, just shadows; wouldn’t that be interesting?

TC: It might be.

AN: It would also be the way the world is now. I could have shadowy forms and things and not make all this frightful effort. Poor Rebecca West, she was in bed for quite a while before she died. They didn’t know what she died of, but she was over 90 and her heart just stopped beating—I think that’s a good way to die.

TC: I would say so.

AN: Why should they cut you up? And have all those things attached to you.

TC: I’m not going to permit it.

AN: I’m not either. I’m against that. But it wasn’t nice for Arthur Koestler to make that twenty-year-younger wife die with him. She wanted to die because she loved him so much. You know there are women who really can love men; she loved him to distraction. Although he was a good man, I read his book in the ’30s and I felt guilty because I was left-wing and he was telling about these Bolsheviks, and Stalin said to them, “Get a confession or you’ll be a head shorter.” They just beat them to death. You should read Isaac Deutscher’s book on Stalin, although I’m more left than that.

I was in Russia in ’81. I had a friend who was a correspondent for the Daily World in Russia, and he always thought my images told more about life in New York than anything else could tell. So he fixed it that I had a show on Gorky Street at the Artists’ Union. I took my whole family with me; I had some money in the bank from prints and I spent every nickel. We all just went to Russia for ten days. I sent them seventy paintings. I must say that they do not have as much interest in individual psychology as I have, and of course I couldn’t get along with the Party here. I’ll show you the picture I painted of Gus Hall, the head of the Party. That was shown in Stamford at the branch of the Whitney Museum but I didn’t say who it was; I just said Gus Hall. The people in Russia are wonderful.

TC: People are nice everywhere.

AN: They don’t want war and they’re very poor. We had a translator who was one of the most ruined creatures I ever met in my life. All she wanted was money. She tried to shake everybody down. Don’t put this in the paper, though, because I never would criticize the Communist Party, although I don’t think there’s any haven for the soul today. Did you listen to Arthur Rubinstein the night before last? They showed a concert that he did in ’77 when he was 90. He played Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto and then he played a thing of Camille Saint-Saëns. He was 90 and nearly blind.

TC: I was in Mexico last week.

AN: You know who wanted to give me a show in Mexico? David Siqueiros. He’s great, Diego Rivera is great, and José Orozco is maybe the greatest. Did you know his murals in Dartmouth?

TC: No.

AN: You should go to see them.

TC: If I ever go up there again I will.

AN: They’re magnificent. Rufino Tamayo is all right; he’s decorative, but he’s not in a class with the others.

TC: He’s not bad.

AN: No, he’s not bad, he’s good. I saw his recent work at the Marlborough Gallery. Compared to some artists he’s a genius. Oh, when Rubinstein was talking to Robert MacNeil, MacNeil asked him, “Do you think there is life after death?” And he said, “Frankly, no, but if there is I’ll be delighted.” And then he asked him what his leading principle in life was and he said, “Never give up.” He said no matter what happens you have to be courageous. He said he thought in his case courageousness was almost his outstanding quality. That and the fact that he loved music so much. He said that today there are lots of piano students who play very well but there’s no soul in it. He said, “I don’t want to use the word soul but I don’t know what you can use in place of it.”

TC: It sounds like you would endorse most of those statements.

AN: Every one of them! But I am one of those—what do they call you if you don’t know whether you go to heaven or hell—an agnostic. But when Billy Graham says you should have Christ as a personal savior, I believe it, and all these young teenagers are delighted to hear it. You should see their faces listening to him.

You know what the great thing in the world is? Loneliness. Do you live alone?

TC: Yes, but only for the last two years.

AN: . . . .

TC: Do you think about the end of life?

AN: Oh yes! Death and I live here together. I wonder how I’ll die.

TC: What are you interested in now?

AN: I always used to tell them I’m an old-fashioned painter—still lifes, country scenes, and people. People have been my overriding interest. I did a great one of Broadway with the shadow on the building. That was Death, of course, creeping over here. Art takes an awful lot of discipline. But I’m not supposed to work more than two hours at a time with my cataracts and my heart. If you have sufficient will you can do anything. I went to a show of Goya at the Metropolitan Museum maybe forty or fifty years ago; I also remember that wonderful portrait of the Duke of Wellington done by Goya. He made him more British than any Britisher could have, and I thought that by looking at that picture you knew more about what Goya felt about the heroism of England than words could ever express. . . . I often say that I’m serving a sentence here.

TC: What do you mean?

AN: Well, life.

Ted Castle’s novel Anticipation will be published in December by MacPherson and Co.


Alice Neel on The Intellectual, 1929:
That child is my child. I’m that blond of the three arms and the three legs. I was so conscious about taking care of that child. You see how I am, I’m looking at the child. The woman in the big chair—her name was Fanya Fass. She’s on cloud nine. She and the other woman are talking about literary things. The painting shows the predatory nature of intellectuals. Intellectuals feed off of life. I love them, I think they’re the best people living, but still they have to get material from somewhere. They either feed off of life or they feed off of negating life. Like Agnes Martin. They either feed on accepting life utterly, like me, or else they feed off of denying that it exists. Do you know how important it is for me to talk to people? I just thought of that!

Alice Neel on Robert Smithson, 1962:
I used to call Smithson the “wolf boy.” And I used to call Edward Avedisian “angel face.” I was furious when he grew whiskers on his face. Smithson’s something like a dog. His face comes out. Most of us have straight faces, but his jaw comes out like a dog’s. He was very bright. He got mad at me because I put that acne on his face. So I took a couple of bloody pimples out. What was hard to do in that picture was to make him look tall. The way I did it was to make his big leg go across horizontally.

Alice Neel on Meyer Schapiro, 1947:
I went to Schapiro's lectures at the New School. He's a very sweet person. Besides being avid, and he's a Hebraic scholar, and he's too mythological, but just the same he has a very sweet streak. When I gave a lecture at Bard recently, an old man came up to see me afterward and said, “Why did you put that hand that way in that picture?” I said, “I always wish I knew.” He said, “You know why, because Meyer Schapiro's brother was a famous hand surgeon.” Maybe it was just osmosis. If my art has any real value it's that sometimes when you're painting insights come to you that you don't know from where they come. And it's that quality in my work that other people don't have. I don’t just paint a likeness, feature by feature, but when I'm working, I stop thinking of anything and it's your subconscious.

Alice Neel on Gus Hall, 1981:
I was going to Russia and I told Gus Hall I wanted to paint him. He said he would love it. He took Nancy and me out to lunch at a Spanish restaurant on 14th street. He came up to pose for me about five times. He was 70 years old. He may be doctrinaire, but he doesn’t act it. He’s very open minded. His people were from Finland, he lived in Minnesota, he spent ten of those 70 years in jail.

Alice Neel on Richard, 1945:
My son Richard in 1945. Isn’t he lovely? He had been away at some camp for about a month and he had just come home. I have a little house down in Spring Lake [New Jersey]. So I just sat him down in a chair and painted that. I always liked that picture.

Alice Neel on Richard in the Era of the Corporation, 1979:
My son Richard in 1979. He was working for a large corporation. He hated it there because sometimes he would solve a problem for them and he would find that another chap had thrown it into the wastebasket. He didn’t get home until nine o’clock, he was miserable, I decided that that was the era when the corporations were devouring the young executives. I just got a copy of my new book. It’s awful, and it’s frightful and it’s good too. It’s grand, awful, and frightful. I told Richard this over the phone and he said, “Like life.”

Alice Neel on Nancy and Olivia, 1967:
We were down in Spring Lake and it was a rainy day, it was late in May. Olivia was three months old, a very active baby, and it was Nancy’s first baby and she was an occupational therapist, she didn’t know anything about babies, she was really terrified. You know why women’s libbers always love that picture, because she looks so frightened. And the way the baby jumps around.

Alice Neel on Joe Gould, 1933:
Joe Gould would knock on the door and say, “Ship Ahoy!,” and nobody would let him in, but I felt sorry for him. I used to give him spinach when you know all he ever ate were old rolls from cafeterias. He told me that he was in love with Augusta Savage. She was black, of course. When he met my mother and father, who were old-fashioned, he said to my mother, “I respect you almost as much as I would if you were black.” This shocked her. She had never heard anything like that before. His mother died and left him some money and he bought a radio and smashed it on the curb. He bought a typewriter and smashed that too. He was writing an oral history of the universe. Recently Columbia University started compiling one but I told them that Joe Gould did this years ago. He wouldn’t take anything typewritten, just face-to-face conversation. He was always busily writing. He had a slogan, it was a take-off on the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world ignite, arson and fire-buggery, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Alice Neel on Self-Portrait, 1980:
The reason my face is so red is that I was 80 years old and it was a terrible effort. I went to the opening when it was shown and this woman kept following me around. I said to Nancy, “Let’s shake that nuisance.” It turned out that she was from the New York Times. The next morning they had a story and my self-portrait in the Times, later it was in Newsweek and I was on Channel 4 twice. Mayor Koch loved it and he gave a sit-down dinner for 139 people at Gracie Mansion for my 80th birthday. I love being on television—not only that, I’m very good at it. I was on Midday Live with Bill Boggs about six times until I quarreled with him. I was on with Roman Polanski, the statutory rape chap. He’s very interesting. Polanski looked at the six pictures I had there and he said, “I love your work, and it’s not the character who’s sitting that interests me, it’s the way you paint.” I was such a fool I didn’t even get his address, but it wouldn’t have been any good anyway because he’s not allowed in this country.