New York

Alice Neel

THUS THE WHITNEY, which can usually be counted on to do the wrong thing, devoted a solo exhibition to Alice Neel whose paintings (we can be reasonably certain) would never have been accorded that honor had they been produced by a man.”

Shall we play name that critic? Hint: His vehicle—surprise! it's a he—was the New York Times, which published this assessment in. . .1977, three years after a single-floor show of Neel's work opened at the Whitney. By contrast, Lawrence Alloway, writing in The Nation in 1974, took the Whitney to task for its belatedness: Neel, who was born outside Philadelphia in 1900, was seventy-four at the time of this, her first solo museum outing. To many who knew her work from gallery shows, the tardiness was puzzling; in the late '60s, museums had begun to award full-career retrospectives to those at the early middle, not just the end, of their artistic lives.

Neel died in 1984 and has yet to garner a definitive survey, but what might be called a retrospective in miniature (if such a thing can be) has been organized by Ann Temkin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Alice Neel” occupies the Whitney's third floor until mid-September, iced top and bottom by sympathetic opposites Barbara Kruger and Robert Rauschenberg. Some of Neel's later portraits may be familiar, but this is a surprising and mind-exercising exhibition overall, rich with immediate and delayed pleasures. The setting, however, inevitably evokes memories of the earlier show. At the opening in June, a number of those who knew or posed for the artist said they could hear her insinuating, wry voice echo in the Breuer space: “Still one damn floor. What do I have to do to get another?”

Can a viewer understand this artist's work without knowing her life? This is the spot in a Neel review where an account of her early miseries and lifelong social commitments usually appears—something that would be absent from a review of, say, Donald Judd, whose coolness seems properly matched to the faceless rigors of an unbiographical formalism. Neel herself spoke—endlessly and not always accurately—about her life as a means of grasping her work, and she was right to do so: One of the expressionist strengths of her paintings is their ability not only to reflect but also to interpret or comprehend their historical moments. Try to imagine how the gardens of Fairfield Porter comprehend their “historical moments,” and you'll see how some representationalists have so much more to give than others.

The daughter of a railroad clerk and a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Neel attended the country's first women-only art school (now Moore College of Art and Design), where, while champing at the premodernist bit, she steeped herself in the methods of Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri. At twenty-five, she married the artist Carlos Enríquez, moved to his homeland, Cuba, and gave birth to a daughter, Santillana del Mar, who died of diphtheria back in the States. She had another daughter, Isabetta, whom Enríquez took to Cuba; Neel subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. She never saw her husband again and saw her daughter only twice thereafter.

Neel was poor most of her life, at least until the '70s, when her prolific output finally returned a decent living. She had what melodramas call terrible luck with men, raising Hartley and Richard, her two sons from two separate liaisons, more or less alone. She has been called an archetypal bohemian, but her hand-to-mouth Greenwich Village existence during the Depression was not unusual, and she reacted to the situation as many did, by looking for socially responsible solutions—Marxism and communism among them—to the period's brutal and inequitable conditions. She was an early beneficiary of the Work Projects Administration, which provided needy artists with canvases and allowed them to paint at home. But for the most part, Neel decided that individual “proletarian portraits,” not socialist-realist tableaux, would be her way of capturing the tenor of the time—despite exceptions such as the somber Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation, ca. 1935, and Nazis Murder Jews, 1936, a record of a Manhattan protest march that was one of the first artworks to announce the truth bluntly stated in its title.

Much of Neel's—and other artists'—WPA work has been lost: Bales of finished canvases were sold by the government at four cents a pound to be used as insulation. Neel, however, had the lucky but infuriating experience of retrieving a few of her WPA paintings from a bric-a-brac dealer, a freighted moment incorporated by her close friend Kenneth Fearing into his 1946 novel, The Big Clock. In 1935, Neel had painted a portrait of Fearing in which the bespectacled, raven-haired author sits at a table, naked city in the background, blood pouring from his heart. (In the 1948 film version of The Big Clock, the Neel character is played deliciously by Elsa Lanchester. The feisty Neel translates well on screen: Susan Sarandon portrays a quieter version in this year's Joe Gould's Secret. Neel's still-startling 1933 portrait of the grinning, naked Gould, festooned with multiple genitalia, is in the Whitney show as well.)

Real and potential loss shadowed the artist's life, and her work was both testament and antidote to its pain. Neel's 1934–35 oil of her soon-to-vanish daughter, Isabetta, shows the naked six-year-old standing sentient and autonomous, her female singularity made vivid by what would become Neel's signature wide, iconic eyes and splayed or twisted hands and feet. An earlier version of this portrait, along with fifty paintings and three hundred drawings and watercolors, had been destroyed by the artist's lover, Kenneth Doolittle. Terrible luck.

Because this small, well-selected show includes early oils and watercolors, some never before displayed, it accomplishes what the large show of Neel's late work in 1985 (at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) could not: It demonstrates how an artist, sampling from a half century of influences and techniques, both consolidates and supersedes them. Which influences? Van Gogh, Ashcan School, Edvard Munch and James Ensor, Chaim Soutine, Charles Demuth, Latin folk art, WPA photography, Diego Rivera. Style coincidences? Neel's sad and angry Symbols, ca. 1933, seems sister to works by Frida Kahlo; Willem de Kooning's female rictus shows up early in the frightening and racially aware Well Baby Clinic, 1928–29.

Neel became Neel through her last twenty-five years of portraits. At the Whitney, we watch as her palette brightens and grows independent of expressionist cause and effect, her drawing hand loosens in easy authority, her engagement with and evaluation of her sitters becomes expert, thorough, unique. She located her subjects not between but beyond the usual portrait poles of isolated, flattered individual and imprecise, idealized social type. In doing so, she awakened the dormant genre of portraiture as much as did her contemporaries Andy Warhol (one of her meatiest and most poignant subjects, 1970) and Chuck Close.

Neighbors, friends, artists, curators, and critics came to Neel's apartment on West 107th Street in Manhattan to pose as the artist instructed. Four-year-old Daisy perches on a sofa next to her mother in Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973; but Ned, with a democratic eye, always painted children outside their age, so the daughter's alert and unsentimentalized humanity becomes central and, lightly supported by the hand and the example of her parent, ready to thrive. A figure in a red dress on a blue-striped chair fills one canvas, her dark eyes fixed in some midground resting place, in a temporary truce (Faith Ringgold, 1977). In The Soyer Brothers, 1973, the aged twins Moses and Raphael sit in suits as witnesses and consciences: a pair, so to speak, of artist eyes.

The constraints of gender were never a given for Neel, as many of her paintings suggest, even announce; during most of her life, she considered the specificities of femaleness and maleness crucial topics. So it must have been gratifying and energizing for Neel, during the eye-opening days of gay and women's liberation, to observe history catching up with her. This was a woman who, in her seventies, brought a drag queen to view the hoary portraits at Manhattan's University Club. (They were, not surprisingly, kicked out.) Her portrait of the feminist Kate Millet was used on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 (reproduced in the show's catalogue). Neel's revived encounter with gender accounts at least in part for the straightforward nipples and belly of Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978; the dissolute eye whites and bulging canary undershorts of Gregory Battcock in the dual portrait of him and David Bourdon (1970); and the labial jewelry front and center in her portrait of the sexual provocateur Annie Sprinkle (1982). Occasionally Neel took her gender intelligence further: The painstaking recumbent nude John Perreault, 1972, a portrait of maleness as well as of a particular man, is Neel's most accomplished challenge to male-paints-female, odalisque art history, her assertion that she inhabits her time as fully as anyone.

So Hilton Kramer, the mystery critic quoted above, was right in one sense: Alice Neel “would never have been accorded” the honor of a show had her paintings been produced by a man. They weren't. And probably they couldn't have been.