Alice Neel: Some Kind of Artist…

Over the years, I’ve gradually made it my policy to never trust any one who looks me in the eye and says, 


“I am an honest person. I never lie.”


  Just a dead give-away for a bullshit artist, right there.



 I want to be very clear in this post. I will confess here and now that I completely believe, to the core of my very being, that there walk among us today…honest people. There are people who really don’t steal, cheat, lie, or manipulate others even if no one would ever know. It is my belief that they are incredibly quiet, rarely seen, and to some degree, avoid the company of most people. My readers who are familiar with gambling odds will understand that the opportunity to spread bullshit increases with wider exposure to others. The more one interacts, the higher the odds are that one will act badly.


  This past week I began reading Phoebe Hoban’s recent biography “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty”, St. Martin’s Press 2010. I’m nearly finished, and since my legions of adoring fans have been clamoring for a more in-depth post than the sporadic bon mots of recent days…here goes.

  I well remember the first time I became aware that there was an Alice Neel. A brooding high school student, I came across her “Self Portrait” 1980 alice-self-portrait.jpg and thought “Now that takes guts.”  I cannot recall exactly what publication in which I found the image, but I do remember noticing that only she and one or two other women artists were mentioned among a forest of men. 


 Younger artists may be surprised to hear that in the 80’s, it was standard practice on the network news to regularly feature the latest tidbits from the current art scene. I remember seeing the work of Judy Chicago, Keith Haring, Laurie Anderson and many others in tiny, exciting snippets at the end of the nightly news. I was a devoted admirer of Warhol and a faithful purchaser of his magazine, “Interview”, as a teen. (thanks, fake-art-friend from 25 years ago who “borrowed” my entire collection. Good luck on eBay). I read everything I could get my hands on about the New York cultural movers and shakers in the Reagan era. To me it was fascinating, and I read and viewed all I could find about any artist who was “making it” in Gotham, Alice Neel included. One is left to imagine how popular this made me in a West Virginia high school.


  I had seen Andrew Neel’s 2008 documentary about the life of his grandmother last summer, and had not forgotten the striking disparity between her chosen lifestyle and the one chosen by her two adult sons, Richard and Hartley. Alice, (according to Hoban), a proud-and-out Communist, complete with surveilling FBI agents, produced two sons who are remarkably staid. They became a lawyer and doctor, respectively. One gets the impression from their interviews in the film and quotes from the book that one would be hard-pressed to find a huarache between them.


  Hoban’s fairly well-indexed and thoroughly foot-noted tome describes a woman born to paint…and not much else. Reading it this past week has given rise to memories of long ago, when my only responsibility was to my art. No one depended on me, and I depended on no one. I lived alone, I worked various jobs (three at one point), and my entire home was my studio. If there was an easel in the living room, so be it.  I still feel that I produced some of my very best work during those alone years.


  As I “matured” (and I use that term loosely), I began taking the traditional route…wife, mother, Barney-song-vocalist. I continued to create, but adjustments were made. I was an adult. Adults adjust. 


  But not Alice. Hoban’s book gives the reader a shocking blow-by-blow of a painter that lied, manipulated and used practically everyone with whom she came in contact. The responsibility to adjust was placed squarely on the shoulders of everyone else, including her very small children. Alice was painting. To Hell with everyone else.


 The biography covers Neel’s regular habit of multiple, often concurrent sexual relationships, often with the understanding that there were “expenses” to be covered in exchange for her company. It tells of heartbreaking abuse heaped on her children by the men Neel allowed into her home. Her boys grew up malnourished, threatened and battered by “intellectuals”. 


  This writer was not surprised at a passage early on in the book, in which Neel recalls the home in Cuba in which she lived with her first husband Carlos Enriquez in the 1920’s. 


  “You can’t imagine how they lived…they had seven servants…His (Carlos’) mother as a girl was dressed by slaves. And they lived in this white palace…My God, it was fantastic.”


  One cannot ignore the fact that Neel was not so pro-proletariat that she turned up her nose at riding in the Enriquez’s chauffeured Rolls-Royce.


  Later, living in New York with some of her children (a daughter had been handed over to her Cuban in-laws), Neel clawed out a life, taking in sketchy boarders, shoplifting, and hiding assets from the Welfare caseworker who occasionally visited, because of Neel’s WPA employment. Assets hidden include a television, a phone and the eyebrow-raising summer home at Spring Lake. Viva la Revolución.  


  Ms. Hoban’s work depicts a character that is not nearly as unusual as I am sure Neel imagined herself to be. I don’t need to spend much time recollecting my own early years as an artist to bring to mind dozens of people I once knew. Geniuses, every one. Painters, writers, poets, and all so damned angry that their genius was going unnoticed by every one but themselves that they were convinced that this oversight by humanity gave them some sort of free pass to use, steal and hurt.


 When I was young, sheltered and idealistic, I genuinely believed that artists could produce only good in the world. The stories of suffering, madness, addiction, suicide…all of those tragedies were only brought on by the public’s failure to comprehend. How little I knew.


 It has been my past associations with self-proclaimed artists that have put me in the victim’s chair more than once. Cheated, stolen from (both of simple lucre and credit for work), taken advantage of and physically struck. Decades later, I can plainly see that when I was mingling with them, I produced no work of any merit, and on one occasion several of my early paintings and brushes were destroyed by an acquaintance.


  Are we, as creatives, freer than other beings? Have we some “extra right” denied other men? How literally are we to take the phrase “Art at any price?”


  Alice Neel’s complete oeuvre presents the viewer with a staggering wealth of portraits and other paintings. A great many are very, very good. Some are pretty bad. In this writer’s opinion, the vast majority of them are done with the skill that a reasonably intelligent person would be expected to develop after 60 years of constant, daily work. One has only to refer to the “Infinite Monkey Theorem” for support.


  There are thousands of painters in America right now who paint with the same level of skill that Alice Neel possessed. Most will die unknown. This writer proposes that Neel’s eventual, long sought-after fame was due far more to the showmanship of the woman herself, who, habitually playing the “mistreated dotty little old lady” card, created  a kind of glamour through which lesser mortals could not see. Her calculating manipulation of people, more than the paintings, is what made her famous.


  In conclusion, “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty” has up to this point been a very stimulating read. Does Neel’s work deserve to be shown in museums? Absolutely. Was she a fitting symbol for the second wave of U.S. feminist art? Unfortunately. Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty …

 Except for the brief Alice Neel quote from Phoebe Hoban’s book, all words are ©Kathy Ferrell and “Big Cup O’Blog” (blog about Cup O Swank Studio), 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathy Ferrell and Big Cup O’Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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