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 

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