Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.
… if I hadn't been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.
In his seminal book Ways of Seeing John Berger famously asserts that 'men act and women appear'. Men look at women, while women watch themselves being looked at. This determines, he suggests, not only the relations between men and women but also the relationship women have with themselves. And, one might add, it conditions the way in which women, who are used to being looked at, look at men. One of the concerns of feminism in the 1960s and 70s was to reclaim the female body from its imprisonment in art as a beautiful, mute object judged by male spectators. The traditional relationship between model and artist depicted in Picasso's Vollard suite of etchings shows the powerful artist-god clasping his naked, vulnerable lover-model in his arms. The image seems to support Renoir's claim (one that could have been made by many other male artists) that: "I paint with my prick". So what does it mean for a woman to paint images of men, reversing the normal relationship between subject and observer? What is it that she is painting?
Dorothy Pearlstein, 1973
Alice Neel was a pioneer, a representational painter of people, landscapes and still life in an era dominated in the US by the essentially masculine language of Abstract Expressionism. Clement Greenberg, the high priest of formalism, had insisted that the canvas be freed of all personal narrative, autobiography and literary content. Influenced by Expressionism and Realism, Neel overtly disobeyed this Modernist mantra. Against the background of this heroic male vision, with its gestural mark-making where, as the critic Harold Rosenberg claimed, "the painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind [note the masculine form,] but went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him", Neel intuitively sought to make sense of the world through an essentially female gaze; one that encompassed emotion, the body and personal experience. Life was her subject. She painted people and, in so doing, unmasked the complexities of their psyches, penetrating the careful carapaces constructed to protect them from public scrutiny. She probed and prodded until she revealed her subject's soft inner core. As she said "… I decided to paint a human comedy - such as Balzac had done in literature… I painted the neurotic, the mad and the miserable… I am a collector of souls."
Success came late to Neel. In her forty year career she exhibited only intermittently and, then, mostly in unknown galleries in group shows sympathetic to left wing causes. In an era where realist painting was seen as hopelessly outdated, Jack Kroll, the then critic of Newsweek, called her "an old pagan priestess somehow overlooked in the triumph of a new religion". Under the mantle of that ubiquitous new religion, Abstract Expressionism, an art work was not so much, as Rosenberg explained, "a picture but an event". Neel was not against abstraction; indeed, many of the painters she most admired were abstractionists and her lose brush marks and nervy application of colour attest to their influence, but she could not stand that abstraction had, as she put it, "pushed all the other pushcarts off the streets." "For me," she said, "people come first… I think I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being in my portraits… every sitter is a new universe, unique with its own laws emphasising some belief, a phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by."
John Perreault, 1972
Yet her own life was largely coloured by artistic invisibility, personal trauma and poverty. Having lost her first daughter, Santillana, to diphtheria, she then lost her second, Isabetta, to her Cuban husband, the volatile painter Carlos Enríquez, who took her to visit his parents, never to return her to Neel's care. These profound losses, a nervous breakdown, along with a penchant for erratic unstable men and a burning compulsion to paint, created an innate turbulence at the centre of Neel's life, which by most accepted standards was raw, dysfunctional and a mess. Despite the subsequent birth of two young sons, Richard and Hartley, she seemed unable to leave the mutually destructive, co-dependent relationship she formed with Sam Brody, a prickly, difficult and talented documentary filmmaker, even though he physically abused and bullied both her boys, whom she appears to have done little to protect. Yet, it could be argued that like the therapist who embraces the role of the 'wounded healer', Alice Neel's traumas and psycho-dramas fed her creative energy and provided her with a unique insight into the inner lives of her subjects. In the 1940s she moved from the artistic milieu of Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in search of somewhere cheaper and more 'authentic' to live and work. It was while domicile there that she caught, on canvas, the innate anxieties of the area's immigrants and the psychological vulnerabilities of its vagrants, artists, writers and children in a series of candid, compassionate, yet uncompromising portraits.
Marxist Girl, 1972
Despite being a long time supporter of women's rights, Neel had little time for essentialist feminist attitudes or, for that matter, for other women whom she mostly saw as rivals. A sensualist who liked men, a committed Communist and one of life's natural outsiders, it was through the class struggles and racially based oppression that clouded the lives of so many women that Neel best related to others of her own sex. She painted a number of strong women, including the feisty Dorothy Pearlstein, 1973 and Irene Peslikis in Marxist Girl, 1972 in which Peslikis sits in a purple chair, her arm raised above her head to reveal a defiantly hairy arm pit.
It was in his essay Civilisation and its Discontents that Freud noted the philosopher-poet, Schiller's observation "that the mechanism of the world was held together by "hunger and love"". Hunger and love might be said to elide in the work of Alice Neel; a hunger to embrace the totality of her fractured self, along with a love of the vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies perceived in fellow human beings, with whom she identified. Her paintings of men not only embrace her subjects' essential male 'otherness', but mirror back conflicted aspects of herself. Her males are both vulnerable - as in her insightful portrait of Andy Warhol where this notoriously controlling artist reveals his ravaged, androgynous body to her gaze - yet also assertively 'themselves' as in her 1935 heroic depiction of Pat Whalen, a committed communist and the union organiser for the longshoremen of Balitimore. As the British Kleinian, John Steiner wrote in Psychic Retreats, 1993: "a part of the self is split off and projected into an object, where it is attributed to the object and the fact that it belongs to the self is denied. The object relationship which results is then not with a person truly seen as separate, but with the self projected into another person and related to as if it were someone else."
Ned McCabe, 1964
In many of Neel's male studies there is something of a role reversal going on for she was, in her own way, just as voyeuristic as many male artists. In the ten portraits included in Men Only we are presented with a variety of attitudes from the erotic to the ironic. In her 1957 portrait of Phil Bard, a well-known left-wing artist and cartoonist whose relatively crude drawings for communist magazines such as the Daily Worker owe something to the work of Georg Grosz, Neel presents him with a wry gaze and a quizzical tilt of the head, no doubt revealing his preference for being the one to create caricatures rather than, as here, being caricatured. In contrast, her 1965 portrait of the young artist Richard Gibbs, whom Neel befriended in Spring Lake, New Jersey, takes an obvious delight in painting this blonde young man in the nude. Whilst Neel doesn't actually portray his genitals, as she did in her 1972 painting of the art critic John Perrault who reclines like Manet's Olympia on a bed of white sheets, Gibb's raised knee poking from beneath the table brings attention to his hidden crotch and functions as a substitute penis, leaving us in no doubt that this is a painting of erotic desire. More disquieting is the 1973 portrait of her son Richard standing barefoot in a green garden, a white towel wrapped around his naked hips, his gaze averted, his shoulders stiff and his fists anxiously clenched. It is a reminder that Neel had little compunction about sexualising her own offspring in her work as in the remarkably frank portrait of her estranged six year old daughter Isabetta (who was later to commit suicide) painted while on a rare visit from Cuba in 1934, which expresses both the intimacy and tension within that damaged mother daughter relationship. Whilst her 1971 painting of her younger son, Hartley, dressed in a blue shirt and white slacks, again sitting with a raised knee protruding into the left hand corner of the canvas, shows him unable to meet her gaze, as if caught in an act of sexual exposure.
Randall in Extremis, 1960
Like many struggling artists, Randall Bailey worked as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Born in Texas he made his way to New York where Neel painted him twice. While the first portrait is fairly conventional this version, painted in 1960, captures his extreme agitation. The flowing lines of his body and balding head conjure Munch's The Scream and emphasis his mental instability. In contrast, her 1968 portrait of John Evans shows a confident, dapper artist in cravat and blue jacket, his feet shod in Spanish boots, his legs and arms crossed in an authoritative, self-confident pose. On many occasions Neel used her sons' friends as models. Purvis, a classmate of Hartley's at High Mowing School, a private, Rudolph Steiner boarding school in New Hampshire, was about seventeen when he posed for Alice who, unusually, simply named the painting with his surname. Ed Ziff was majoring in Chemistry at Columbia and was a classmate of Hartley's, since becoming a distinguished Biochemist specialising in neurobiology at the Skirball Institute at New York University Medical School, while Stephen Herbert, a doctor in Vermont, was also a colleague of Hartley Neel.
For the most part Alice Neel painted direct from the model. Not concerned with photographic accuracy her colours are unnatural and expressionistic, the hands of her subjects often elongated, their bodies contorted and the eyes asymmetrical. The truth that emerges is not a simple physical truth, but something deeper, closer to the insights acquired during the psychoanalytic process. Her portraits are investigations into her sitter's state of being; two way mirrors in which the subject reflects back the concerns of the painter, while the artist absorbs the subject's moods, mannerisms and vulnerabilities. Complex and mercurial, her portraits refuse single readings and contain multiple realities. As Frank Auerbach said of her portraits: "it seems that, the more stressful the sitting, the better the painting."
To sit for Neel was a challenging process; an intimate conversation between sitter and artist in paint, a process of revelation and discovery, of coming into being, where both the subject and the artist were brought face to face with their own innate and very human imperfections.
Alice Neel Men Only at Victoria Miro from 8 June to 29 July 2011
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Alice Neel 1960-1974