New York

Alice Neel

“I have always considered the human being the first premise—I feel his condition is a barometer of his era.” With this assertion, printed in the brochure accompanying a retrospective of her portraits at the Whitney Museum, Alice Neel affirms her focus on the human individual as subject matter. Yet the term “portrait” is somewhat deceiving, for it implies an emphasis on the personality of the sitter. In another statement, Neel explains, “I decided to paint a human comedy—such as Balzac had done in literature.” The comparison is apt because, like Balzac, Neel tends to stress characteristics indicative of a social type rather than of the individual’s uniqueness. Harold Cruse is depicted as the troubled, insecure black intellectual of the ’50s; Abdul Rahman as the proud, self-confident Afro-American of the ’60s; Irene Paslikas (The Marxist Girl) as the intellectualizing student revolutionary; Timothy Collins as the all-American, Madison Avenue style executive. However, despite her inclination to simplify the complexities of human nature, to view people as exemplars of more generalized social trends, Neel rarely imposes a prefabricated, stereotyped image on her sitters. Her method is more inductive, her categorizing grounded in the selection of actual traits which become symptomatic of the universal condition.

It is necessary here to differentiate Neel’s approach from that of Balzac. Neel is not interested in a dispassionate, objective description of her subjects; her style is Expressionism rather than Realism. The parallels are to certain Vienna Secessionists or the Brücke artists rather than to Daumier. The tense, brittle figure of Priscilla Johnson, overpowered by the acid green of her dress and of the swirling plants surrounding her, recalls the devices of Kirchner or Heckel, although the final impact is more an Americanized version of Kokoschka’s or Schiele’s decadent aristocracy. A similar Expressionist vocabulary permeates Pregnant Woman, in which a sketchy male head looms ominously behind the bloated body of the woman. The brooding face of the woman is severed from her disfigured body; she has no neck. As in much of Neel’s work, line is the primary expressive vehicle, tautly confining the body within its often deliberately awkward contours. The gestural brushstrokes, stumbled paint, unfinished areas and lurid green pink color scheme all preclude any prettiness and heighten the overall emotional intensity. The danger inherent in such devices is that they become contrived mannerisms divorced from their syntactic context. Yet more often Neel avoids this pitfall, and is able to vary her technique to suit her subject matter. In another example, The Soyer Brothers, Neel thins her paint, grays her colors, and softens her gestures to accent the self-involved introspection of the two brothers, whose preponderant heads weigh down their shriveled, as opposed to distorted, bodies. This inwardness is further emphasized by the separateness of the two men seated close together on the couch.

The strength of Neel’s work lies in her ability to essentialize the foibles of her subjects without resorting to cruel caricature. Her people stare out directly at the viewer as if to demand an empathetic response to their raw humanity. The weakness is that at times Neel’s symbolistic vision engenders artifice, her typecasting overcomes the individuality of her sitters and, thus, loses its foothold in the reality of the person.

––Susan Heinemann