It’s been nine years since the paintings of Alice Neel (1900–1984) received a retrospective airing at the Whitney Museum, and though another major survey of her work is being planned for next year, it will be mounted by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and won’t be traveling to New York. That’s a real shame, but luckily, a tasty sampling of her art is on view in concurrent exhibitions uptown and down. The David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea is presenting a group of portraits spanning the years 1945 to 1982, while the Zwirner & Wirth gallery on the Upper East Side is offering a series of Neel’s nudes painted in the 1930s. Both exhibits are on view through June 20, and serve as a reminder, if one is needed, of Neel’s essential place in American art.
Neel, of course, is known primarily for her portraits of her many friends, lovers, family members and art-world acquaintances, likenesses that are as psychologically penetrating—even brutally, at times—as they are determined to maintain the essential humanity of the sitter. These canvases were products of both a New York City and a New York art scene that disappeared long ago, a more intimate place where individuality and idiosyncrasy were prized, and money—whether you had it or not—didn’t seem to matter all that much. Neel herself was the very model of a 20th-century bohemian. A descendent of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, she spent the prime of career between 1942 and 1962 living in a third-floor apartment in Spanish Harlem, where she not only painted, but raised a pair of sons fathered by two different men: José Negron, a Puerto Rican nightclub singer and Sam Brody, a labor organizer. It’s no surprise that her reputation began to grow with the rise of feminism in the 1970s, or that she served as an icon of the movement, but Neel’s insistence on personal liberty was not without cost. In her twenties, Neel had married a fellow painter, a Cuban named Carlos Enríquez. They had two daughters, the first of whom, Santilliana, died of diphtheria at age one; the other, Isabetta, was taken by Enríquez back to Cuba when he and Neel split up (they never formally divorced), a move which sent Neel into a mental decline. She had a nervous breakdown and attempted to commit suicide. This episode was to have a lasting impact on her work and its sui generis synthesis of expressionism and primitivism.
Rawness was the hallmark of Neel’s style, most often manifested by her willingness to strip herself and her subjects quite literally bare. Nudity for Neel was the most direct route to plumbing the human condition, and in this respect, the exhibit at Zwirner & Wirth represents the artist unplugged, especially in the trio of pale watercolors, all rendered in 1935, showing Neel in intimate repose with two of her lovers, Negron and John Rothschild, the owner of a travel agency that specialized in sending students to Moscow. The latter figures in the shockingly frank Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom), showing the two urinating after intercourse (or so one can surmise from Rothschild’s tumescence). Since Neel is using the toilet, Rothschild must avail himself of the sink in a scene which melds abjection and innocence. But what’s most telling about the image is its sense of camaraderie underscored by an emotional remoteness made even more evident in another rendering of Rothschild standing over Neel while she stretches out on a bed. In both watercolors, neither looks at the other. The same goes for Untitled (Alice and José), in which Neel and Negron, positioned near the edge of the bed, stare out at the viewer. Although Neel puts herself in a voluptuous pose behind Negron, her facial features are indistinct; Negron, meanwhile is seated, one hand perched nervously on his inner thigh. He registers a look of uncertainty, rather like a Mona Lisa of performance anxiety.
Neel was hardly what we’d consider a conventional beauty today, and indeed in these images, she makes no bones about her own corpulence; but with her face framed by a cascade of curly red hair, she was undeniably alluring, and one gets the feeling that she knew it. She maintained overlapping relations with the men in her life. Rothschild, for example left his wife and two children to move in with her for a brief period, even while she maintained connections with Negron and another paramour, a merchant marine sailor named Kenneth Doolittle. At one point in the early 1930s, Enríquez also tried to re-enter her life, but that proved to be too much even for Neel, and he was rebuffed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Neel’s juggling act didn’t always work out. Although Rothschild remained a close friend and supporter throughout her life, Doolittle ended their relationship quite angrily in 1934, by burning three hundred of her drawings and watercolors, and slashing 50 of her oil paintings, including a nude portrait of her then six-year old daughter. One can only imagine the Sally-Mann–like debate over kiddie porn that painting might have sparked had it survived into our politically sensitive era.
Neel also kept exceptionally close ties to women, who were sometimes subject to erotically candid depictions. This is certainly true of the watercolor from 1935, showing her friend Katherine Hogle, whose bare body is made even more provocative by the fact that she’s wearing a hat, and opened fur-collared coat and a pair of high heels. Similarly, the installation in Chelsea includes a painting from 30 years later, titled simply Ruth Nude, which transforms its middle-age subject into an unabashed sex object.
But the most intriguing images in the Chelsea show are a pair of oils featuring Hartley, her son with Sam Brody. In Sam and Hartley, from 1945, the boy can be seen clinging fearfully to his father. In Hartley from 1952, he’s seen trembling on the brink of adolescence, wearing shorts and a striped T-shirt, but also a very adult-looking wristwatch. Although his gaze meets ours, he appears lost in his own thoughts. It’s interesting to note that one of Neel’s best-known compositions from the 1970s was a portrait of Hartley’s older brother, Richard, whose father was José Negron. Shown as the successful business-man he’d become, Richard wears a suit and tie, and looks very tightly wrapped up in himself, almost glowering at the viewer. That painting is not in this show, but its inclusion would have certainly made an interesting pairing with the one here of Hartley, as both suggest Neel’s unflinching acknowledgement of their evident issues with mom—or maybe her issues with them. Perhaps because she was a woman, one of themes that runs through her work is the conflict between parental obligation and the desire to fulfill one’s own destiny. Neel, it would appear, took neither one lightly, and also refused to sacrifice one for the other.
Neel, then, is our great poet of modern American anxiety, but her work also projects another quality—a stangely Edenic uncanniness we tend to associate with the unschooled itinerant portraitists who plied their trade in the young nation that existed before the Civil War. And in the final analysis, Neel was a bit like them: A chronicler of a vanished republic of the free-spirits and -thinkers who once called New York City home.
Images: (top) Alice Neel. Ruth Nude, 1964. Oil on canvas. Canvas: 40 1/8 x 48 inches. 101.9 x 121.9 cm. (bottom) Alice Neel. Sam and Hartley, c.1945. Oil on canvas. Canvas: 30 x 27 inches. 76.2 x 68.6 cm. Both images © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York