Monday, May 20, 2019

Up close and personal with Alice Neel. FREEDOM (David Zwirner Books)

"When you're an artist you're searching for freedom; you never find it,'cause there ain't any freedom. But at least you search for it. In fact, art could be called the search."

"Art is two things: a search for a road and a search for freedom. You know all these things in life keep crawling over you all the time, so it's very hard to feel free."

--Alice Neel

I met Alice Neel at her Whitney retrospective in 1974. A year out of art school, I was working for a  San Francisco paper actually called Art News. She offered to take me through the exhibition and made the point she wanted NO review about her work that ignored the life that made it. ( At this time, art criticism "deconstructed" art as separate from the artist). Alice pointed to a portrait of a guitar player and explained how she ran off with him to Spanish Harlem. He left her but she stayed because it was cheap and she had kids.

 Alice liked  painting neighbors, who worked hard to feed their kids.  She mentioned, almost in passing, how difficult it was to have a child die. The WPA saved her when she was broke. She had a job painting and regular money. Below some neighbors.

 Alice wasn't sentimental about mothers and their children. It was very difficult, as shown in these two early WPA works, a well-baby clinic, and a mother and children.

At her iconic portrait of Andy Warhol, she did a full stop, and in a hushed voice said his body was a map. The road she traced,  a finger above the canvas, was the scar where Valerie Solanos shot him. "Why would anyone want to hurt Andy?" she asked. He was shy but would come to her place to talk. He told her funny stories. But he was isolated, very alone. One could see that on his body.  She had painted a desert.

At the end of my tour, I thanked her and turned to leave. She almost whispered, close, "Make it when you're young. When I was 35, this show would have changed my life. Now it makes little difference. My life is made. But I come here every day. I like to see the reactions of people to my work." I looked down, her legs were swollen. The trek to the Whitney cost her something.

Ptredictably, my article was rejected as "too humanistic." The editor chastized me, "a person's subjective experience had litle to do with how the art was constructed." A dissenter to that mostly dead approach, I opened FREEDOM, a David Zwirner Book (published by D.A.P.) with great pleasure and curiosity about Alice's nudes. In her portraits clothes identify what's underneath. But they are stand-ins. I guessed the Warhol painting was no outlier. Neel made thick outlines to separate her sitters from their backgrounds. Body and psyche are continuous, despite the clothes. Warhol's head was somehow less animated than his exposed chest.

Figure drawing offers the chance to see the skin the person is dressed in. No wonder she preferred nudes. In the excellent intro to FREEDOM, daugher in law Ginny Neel talks of how Alice's art defied female steriotypes. Her  honesty about pregnancy and childbirth is still as rare as her open sexuality, She painted male bodies as men painted women. Take a look at her portrait of the the art critic John Perrault. She asked him to pose for the Whitney Show. Here is character and male beauty.

Helen Molesworth's essay "Looking with and Looking at Alice Neel" gives an art historical context to the question, how does a woman paint a naked body when there's no tradition of the female "gaze?"When I was an art student in Philadelphia the blue laws were still in place. We had to draw male nudes with a brief hiding their genitals. Women were uncovered but not men. When the law was changed, we women were disconcerted. How were we to draw this body part we had never studied?  It was embarassing.

Alice's male nudes, like her females, are individuals instead of the usual idealized figures reflecting male fantasies. Ahough her lovers may be rendered erotic, sexually attractive, her emotions are not the subject of the portrait. Similarly, when a male is paired with a female nude, in the painting below,  the subjects are individuals while in relation with each other. They seem physically together and emotional worlds apart. 

Rare is the man, who paints women without their clothes  observing their emotions and character-instead of  how he feels about their looks. With Alice Neel's nudes the closest she comes to projection of her feelings seems to be in the pregnant ones. Neel who had 4 children, may have identified with the strange plasticity of the pregnant body. In her work, there are no idealized round beaming earth mothers.

Neel's pregnant nudes can appear uncomfortable, surprised, resigned. They are true to the odd truth of pregnancy--a strange being inside a woman's body. Perhaps Neel identified with the unguarded moment, feelings she might have shared. The children she paints are also individuals, not  appendanges of their mothers. Here is a portrait of her own daughter at 9. Also a set of twins with their mother and a boy baby--contented, curious,  male.

This book of nudes is unvarnished, inexplicably human and emotionally unafraid. The compassion and even occasional revulsion she paints is the perfect antidote to the distanced ironic even pornographic stances in some contemporary depictions of naked people.

In Alice Neel's work, eroticism is more complex, up close and personl, a rare female gaze. 
Recommended, especially if you have been  feeling distanced from the human condition.  
Perhaps estranged in a sea of cellphones 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Barbara Kahn's dark comedy WHERE DO ALL THE GHOSTS GO? Theater for the New City

WHERE DO ALL THE GHOSTS GOTheater for the New City (Written and directed by Barbara Kahn, ) opens with a rapier thrust by Sarah Bernhardt (Steph Van Vlack). a ghost in Napoleonic drag. She thinks herself condemned to solitude in the derelict hotel, until Marcel Duchamp with his transparent chessboard shows up. Played with droll astringency by David Leeper, his verbal provocations are interrupted by fellow ghouls Elizabeth Keckley, a  demure companion to Mary Todd Lincoln (Chloe Simone Crawford). Then Buffalo Bill Cody (Christopher Lowe) crashes into the room. When Duchamp purposes chess, you get that he and Cody may have been playing an infinite game. When the Baroness (Sarah Teed) floats through the room and Duchamp dramatically calls her a thief, it's but a ripple in her trajectory through time with a bright scarf.

It is a scarf, ostensibly lost, that brings Jos (Ashley Versher) and her wife, Frankie (Fleur Voorn) to return to the derelict hotel. A novelist who writes ghost stories, Jos is stuck on Chapter three. Is the scarf an excuse for something else missing?  Objectives, ghostly or human, are part of the vague atmosphere of the room, a former therapist's office  (kudos to Mark Marcante for lights and set).  Jos is able to see and hear the ghosts. Frankie, a scientist, is less than comfortable that Jo is talking with invisible people. Creeped out, she leaves and Jos quizzes the ghosts about what humans expect from ghosts. She also takes on the therapist's role listening to the indignities suffered by once famous beings now lonely and unrecognized.

All have connections to the hotel and their histories play a major role in this play. Haunted by past misfortunes and pleasures, creative work and major challenges, they navigate the halls of times past. Keckley, an African American, was seamstress and companion to Mary Lincoln, experiencing racism in accommodations and proud of how she faced it. Buffalo Bill, who employed American Indians, eternally mourns the death of Sitting Bull. Bernhardt, baptized Catholic, faced 19th century anti-semitism, after she acknowledged her heritage during the Dreyfus case. Duchamp pioneered a drag persona as a creation, declared toilets sculpture and exiled himself to Chess' pure abstraction.

The unearthly ringing of a telephone (Alexander Graham Bell's experiment), warns the ghosts of life outside and the imminent destruction of their home. Their  fears intensify, affecting the lights and Jos fears she will be plunged into darkness. When Frankie appears with her Ipad,  the living and the dead unite to find the ghosts' final resting places. In the process,the ghosts acknowledge the lesbian couple as social pioneers and lovers. In the light of Apple technology,will humans and ghosts outpace the wrecking ball?

Barbara Kahn calls this a dark comedy but it's "Topper" friendly, a valentine for souls lost and found. Kahn was inspired to write Where do all the Ghosts Go? after hearing about plans to demolish the St. Denis, a 165-year old building at the corner of East 11th St. and Broadway, south of Union Square. She has won numerous awards, including the Torch of Hope, the Robert Chesley Playwriting Award and the 2017 Acker Award for her work in downtown theater.

Kahn's historical plays include Verzet Amsterdam, The Three-Mile Limit, Ghost Light now and Then, Women of the Wind, Island Girls  and many more. Look for her next wise comedy.

. S.W.