Alice Neel: Painted Truths

Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.

Sam Brody was a formidable figure in the film culture of the Red Decade, an activist, artist, and intellectual with integrity and ability. One might therefore interpret Alice Neel’s 1958 portrait as a paean to a taciturn but resolute hero of the Left. Brody was Neel’s on-off lover from 1940 onwards, a supportive if irregular figure in her life and the father of her son Hartley. There is a sense of placid domesticity in the sullen yet thoughtful expression, the easy pose, the muted palette, and the patient study of the fall of light on skin. It is certainly unlike Neel’s earlier portrait of the unionist Pat Whelan who grimaces with the clenched fists of a working class warrior, furiously grasping The Daily Worker, or the nightmarish allegory of the coolly grinning communist poet Kenneth Fearing, whose torso is opened to reveal a gruesome skeleton pouring blood from a punctured heart. Yet Brody and Neel’s relationship was always turbulent, and they finally parted just months after the painting was completed. Their life together was coloured by Brody’s dramatic mood swings which were allegedly visited upon his stepson Richard, Neel’s son from her brief affair with José Negron, in the form of violent abuse. In a fascinating documentary by Hartley’s son Andrew, on show at this exhibition, Brody is conveyed as an intemperate bully. Whilst Neel’s portrait of Brody is positioned alongside her haunting 1945 painting Richard Aged Five there is no mention of this grim account of domestic cruelty. Yet this narrative is nonetheless implied in the juxtaposition of the brooding stepfather with this eerily elongated partially blind child, whose huge eyes render him both vulnerable and self-possessed.
The ‘painted truths’ in Neel’s paintings were clearly multi-faceted and profound. Her idiom changed gradually throughout a career spanning six decades until her death in 1984, beginning in the late 1920s with darkly symbolic portraits and macabre nudes with caricatural genitals. Her mature work is characterised by carefully designed close-up compositions, rich colour modelling, fluid brushwork, bold outlines, exaggeration of physiognomy combined with striking resemblance, resonant skin tones, and sophisticated treatment of light effects. Her most obvious peer as a figurative painter is Lucien Freud, but Neel’s portraits avoid the visceral meatiness of the latter’s work for a poignant yet unflinching examination of the subject. A less likely comparison but analogous project would be Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, where even the most hardened hipster crumbled under the unrelenting gaze of the artist’s inert yet merciless cine-camera. Suitably, Neel’s portrait of Warhol epitomises her gentle autopsy of the sitter. Denuded of his habitual shades, a topless Warhol seemingly winces with blushing face and clenched eyes, reluctantly submitting to the forensic glare that forsakes his customary deadpan persona. The elegant spare line drawing of the bed on which he is perched draws attention to the convincing volume of this exposed body, but also echoes the scars on his violated torso, results of operations that followed his shooting by S.C.U.M. member Valerie Solanis. Yet Warhol is nonetheless granted dignity in this compassionate treatment via the lyrical handling that typifies Neel’s later style, used to great effect in several studies of Factory luminaries in which she trades gaudy sensationalism for breezy intimacy.

Alice Neel: Andy Warhol (1970). Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Timothy Collins
Alice Neel: Andy Warhol (1970). Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Timothy Collins

The range of people in her pictures reflects the scope of her nebulous social world, encompassing family members, friends from the art world, and local acquaintances from greatly varying economic backgrounds. Neel’s approach appears thoroughly democratic, bestowing equal importance upon art critics and house cleaners from her local area (a rare exception is a grotesque of collector Ellie Poindexter, produced in a fit of enmity). Even when she paints strangers such as a cheerfully tragicomic salesman there is evidence of a probing observation, as is she is capturing her subject unawares. Her paintings seem simultaneously private and public, perhaps due to her lifelong practice of portraying colleagues, friends, and family. Images of mothers with children are numerous in the show, but Neel’s take on this traditional subject is hardly conventional. Indeed, there is a definite radicalism to her focus on close relationships that tacitly question the authority of the normal family unit, and her group portraits, whether of gay couples, single parents or her sons and daughters-in-law, emphasize the potency of bonds that disrupt a patriarchal order. In the sole family portrait the father (John Gruen) sits centrally but without authority—his manneredimpassive expression is over-shadowed by the assertive and acute glance of his partner (Jane Wilson) and the quietly searching look of their gangly daughter. Neel’s portraits are never neutral reproductions concerned with likeness or painter/sitter affinity but interventions into the social, and the relationships between Neel and her subjects and amongst the sitters themselves have political substance.

Although Neel was closely connected to the communist movement in the 1930s (less actively thereafter), and produced some fabulously moody street studies for the WPA arts project, her politics were personal and intuitive rather than formal or doctrinaire. This related in part to her negotiation of a tough life as a mostly single mother and a woman artist— and not least a female portraitist amidst the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism and the attendant machismo of the colour field, during the period from the 1940s to the 1960s when figurative art was the straw man of High Modernism. Her late but no less welcome success from the 1970s onwards marked a revision of both elisions, but this exhibition demonstrates that her commitment to her work transcended the vagaries of critical fashion.
In her long career, Neel created a neighbourhood of personalities that ran parallel to if not against orthodox family values, a constellation of everyday people stripped naked, whether figuratively or not. Perhaps the over-arching emphasis on the personal relationship of artist to work occasionally veers into inappropriate psycho-biographical explanations, so that two paintings called Fire Escape of 1946 and 1948 are described as metaphors for Neel’s restricted life as a mother working outside of the structures of the gallery system, an overly literal mapping of Neel’s frustrating predicament onto the images. Nevertheless, this is a minor complaint against a brilliantly realized exhibition that pays tribute to an artist whose extraordinary paintings are imbued with an irreverent yet deeply inquisitive and sympathetic sensibility.
Alice Neel: Painted Truths was on view at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 8 July – 17 September 2010.