The Wickedly Tender, Kindly Unforgiving Paintings of Alice Neel

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    Alice Neel Alice Neel, American artist, bohemian and feminist avant la lettre, turned, as the legend goes, a lifetime of personal setbacks into a uniquely incisive brand of portraiture while becoming a colorful celebrity in her own right. Painting during her last two decades the likenesses of art world bigwigs, the poet Frank O'Hara, the former Met curator of contemporary art, Henry Geldzahler and Andy Warhol among them, Neel achieved the fame and comfort that had eluded her throughout her life. The big city met them with a blow of unromantic reality. Hunger and pauperism gave way to the death of their baby from diphtheria, the birth of a second daughter, the end of the couple's marriage, Neel's permanent separation from her child, the artist's nervous breakdown, several suicide attempts, forced institutionalization and, finally, the destruction of her work by a jealous lover. Traipsing from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem to the Upper West Side, Neel came to embody the stereotype of the misfit artist, forever at odds with society and the fickle winds of artistic fashion, condemned to be buried inside history's landfill. But an undaunted, ambitious Alice Neel had other plans.

    Crafting an evolving, inimitably awkward style that still makes painting instructors gnash their teeth, Neel melded the expressionism of George Grosz and Max Beckmann with the intensely urbane realism of 1940s documentary photography. That she did so precisely at a time when figure painting fell precipitously out of favor due to the rise of abstract expressionism is a testament to both her utter pigheadedness and the staying power and achievement of her mature art.

    Alice Neel, Last Sickness, 1952 The exhibition "Alice Neel," organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and currently on view at the Whitney Museum, provides some 75 paintings and watercolors as evidence of Neel's hard-earned, painterly success. Covering some 50 years of work, the exhibition, authoritatively curated by Ann Temkin, charts Neel's growth from talented, odds-against unknown to virtuoso stylist, relating all the while the artist's paintings back to her genuinely compelling and dramatic biography. Neel's early work from the late 1920s and early 1930s, such as the watercolors After the Death of the Child, done after her daughter Santillana's death, and the painting Symbols, a shrine-like portrait of the artist as a limp voodoo doll, faces the confessional mirror of cutting psychological self-examination in her best Sylvia Plath manner. Rendered in a clumsy style that is equal parts naive art and Diego Rivera socialist realism, these works and others, like Untitled (Alice and John Rothschild in the Bathroom), a portrayal of then nearly unthinkable female frankness depicting the artist and her lover emptying their irritated, postcoital bladders, are some of the last of the artist's acute and self-effacing depictions of her own person.

    Turning to portraits of others as a means to peel back layers of armor from burrowed humanity, Neel looked to her friends and acquaintances, among them, artists, poets, journalists, her children's pals, people she met at parties or on the street. Her portrait of Joe Gould, the legendary bum immortalized in The New Yorker and the recent film, is a brilliant piece of Northern Renaissance portraiture updated via 1930s West Village bohemia. Painted against a background of buffed, scratchy vermilion, a naked, seated Gould is shown with his thin hair tufted into horns and smiling demonically, three descending sets of cock and balls dangling from his droopy loins. A self-advertised playboy and lifelong writer of the literally mythical oeuvre "The Oral History of Our Time," Gould was painted by an unflinching Neel as the magnificent megalomaniac he was: a character larger than life but, perforce, way smaller than his grandiose fictions.

    Other pictures, like Isabetta, an elegant, stridingly confident portrait of the artist's second daughter; T.B. Harlem, a haunting picture of a bedridden man with a collapsed and bandaged chest cavity; and Last Sickness, a pinched but vibrantly colored portrait of Neel's mother two months before her death from lung cancer, go a ways to establishing the painter's fully mature style. Vigorous paint handling, straightforward composition and a penchant for torturing her subject's hands into spiders' legs describe her steadily advancing work. Another simple observation: one nearly always enters Neel's portraits through her sitter's eyes.

    In the 1960s, at the behest of her therapist, Neel began to paint portraits of art world stars and power brokers. Frank O'Hara, then curator of contemporary art at MOMA, was the first of an illustrious list. Painted in profile initially as a sort of aquiline, Roman god of art, Neel did a second portrait of O'Hara as a nervous nudge, all beady eyes, twisted rictus and chair-gripping hands. (What transpired between the completion of the first and second portraits will forever remain a matter of speculation.) Neel's portrait of Henry Geldzahler is equally difficult and complex: posed like a cross-legged intellectual, Geldzahler's pudgy mug is screwed up into a petulant boy's frown, his left hand twisting and turning in search of an escape hatch like the limb of an El Greco saint.

    About Andy Warhol, Neel, then at the peak of her formidable powers, said simply: "As a person Andy is very nice. As an art world personality, he represents a certain pollution of this era. I think he's the greatest advertiser living, not a great portrait painter." When the time came to do Warhol's portrait, Neel showed the younger decadent and competing portraitist a thing or two about painting and shock value. Engaging a lifelong knack for getting her sitters out of their clothes, she pictured Warhol, who was notoriously shy about his body, with his shirt off, the crisscross scars resulting from the bullet wounds inflicted on him by Valerie Solanas visible in the manner of stigmata. Painted in washed-out hospital gray, light blue and plaster, Warhol's torso and the dingy corset he used to encase it give off the whiff of the clinic, a cruel effect counterweighted by the sitter's closed eyes and his daintily clasped hands.

    "The beautiful is always strange," Baudelaire said, by which he meant that beautiful things are, at bottom, strangely familiar. Stranger still, then, it is to encounter several rooms full of the wickedly tender, kindly unforgiving paintings of Alice Neel, one of the most powerful, idiosyncratic and original portraitists of the century.

    "Alice Neel," through Sept. 17 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. (75th St.), 570-3676.