Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty

Uploaded by BrooklynMuseum on 23.11.2011

bjbj Psj7 My name is Rebekah Tafel. I work directly with Elizabeth Sackler at the Elizabeth
A. Sackler Foundation. She's unable to be here today, but I know she is with us in spirit.
Welcome to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The center, which opened
in 2007, is an exhibition and education facility dedicated to the past, the present, and the
future of feminist art. Specifically the center strives to raise awareness of feminism's cultural
contributions, to educate new generations about the meaning of feminist art, to maintain
a dynamic learning facility, and to present feminism in an approachable and relevant way.
The feminist gallery, which is featuring the Lorna Simpson exhibition right now, is only
just a piece of what the center has to offer. As Doctor Sackler formulated this place, she
wanted it to be more than just a space to show art, but a space for discourse and discussion
and the exchange of ideas. I recently moved into the position of Director of Programs
at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation and as such I've been given the unique opportunity
to work hand in hand with the fantastic education department here at the museum as well as the
center's staff. The curator Catherine Morris and the other people involved directly with
the center. With them we've been able to develop lectures and panels that support the center's
mission and the exhibition schedule. And I think today's program with Phoebe is an ideal
fit. I learned of Phoebe's upcoming biography, Alice Neel, The Art of Not Sitting Pretty,
last October. And I was thrilled when I finally received it in December. I began reading and
as early as page two I was convinced that Phoebe needed to come speak at the center
and I'm delighted that she accepted our invitation to do so. She writes on page two, Although
she herself probably would have rejected such labels, she was America's first feminist multiculturalist
artist, a popular painter for the ages. And I thought , what a bold start, and I was hooked.
I read the entire book very quickly. And throughout the book, which is here and available for
purchase afterwards, and Phoebe has agreed to stick around and sign copies for those
of you who purchase a copy, I was struck by her accounts of the bohemian and unconventional
Alice Neel and the details of her life as a strong woman. You know, certainly not without
her faults, but who continued to paint even though her painting was wholly unfashionable
at the time and not very lucrative. The directness and some may even say the brutality of Alice
Neel's artistic style and personal relationships make her somewhat of a problematic character,
but a true individual and an intriguing artist. Since the publication of Alice Neel, The Art
of Not Sitting Pretty, it has been named one of the 10 best books of 2010 by The Village
Voice and was included in O Magazine's 15 books to watch for 2011. In November of 2010,
the New York Times art critic Ken Johnson wrote that, Of American art books, this should
be the biography of the year. It was also an editor's choice in the Sunday Times New
York book review on January 2nd. Phoebe Hoban has written widely about culture and the arts
from investigative features to major profiles. A New York based arts journalist, she began
her career at Newsweek International and in 1984 began a technology column for the New
York magazine. In 1985, Phoebe began writing investigative articles about cultural controversies
at New York Magazine, among such diverse topics as J.D. Salinger, Woody Allen, and Kathleen
Battle. Since 1985 she has covered culture and the arts for a number of publications
including The New York Times, the New York Magazine, and The New York Observer. She's
also written for Vogue, Harper's Bizarre, GQ, Vanity Fair, Elle, and TV Guide, with
pieces from investigative stories to celebrity profiles. Her biography on Jean Michel Basquiat
is now a Penguin paperback and was a national bestseller, as well as a New York Times Notable
Book of the Year. As I mentioned previously I read Alice Neel with great interest, and
anticipating the opportunity to hear Phoebe discuss this compelling work, I am delighted
she is here today, and I would ask that you help me welcome her to the podium. Well, thank
you for such a gracious welcome and thank you all for coming out on a spectacularly
beautiful Sunday afternoon, and sitting inside at the wonderful Brooklyn Museum. I just want
to say that I had thought about tailoring this particular lecture, it's really more
of a reading, to the fact that this is in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center, with its
feminist mission. And I chose not to do that, partly because I wasn't sure how many of you
were really familiar with Alice Neel's, the sort of broad scope of her life, which really
covered the century, and partly because Alice Neel herself was such an ambivalent feminist,
even though her work itself is practically de facto feminist. But I'm more than happy
to answer questions about Alice Neel's relationship with feminism after I finish reading because
she did have a very tough and tense relationship with feminism and with feminists and I'd be
happy to discuss it. Just to tell you what this is, this is actually the cover of the
book and since a couple of people in the audience were asking if that was me, no that's Alice
Neel at age 44. She actually had a youth before she became a sort of cranky old lady going
around to galleries. And the picture was taken by her then lover, Sam Brody, the father of
her younger son Hartley, and is very typical of Alice Neel's surroundings. She didn't sell
much of her work and there was always work everywhere around her. And that's in her studio
which was part of her apartment. Her paint brushes and glasses still rest by the easel
on the Upper West Side apartment where Alice Neel spent the last 22 years of her life.
The living room overlooking Broadway and 107th Street, which also served as her studio, is
filled with 1950s furniture. The surfaces are strewn with artifacts. On top of a drawer
is a faded snapshot of Jose Santiago Negron, the father of her oldest son Richard, a handsome
Puerto Rican musician who later became a priest. There are paintings everywhere, on the walls,
stacked in the hall. Everything has been left just as it was when Neel lived and worked
here, covering hundreds of canvasses with ruthlessly honest portraits of the people
who intrigued her, from neighborhood children to Andy Warhol. Like the Pollock Krasner house
in Springs, where Jackson Pollock's half filled gallons of paint and cans of brushes remain
in suspended animation, Neel's place has been frozen in time since her death in 1984. But
unlike Pollock's studio, which has been carefully preserved as a temple to its former resident
genius, no effort has been made to sanctify the Neel home. Like the artist who lived there
it remains strikingly uncontrived. All that's missing is the powerful presence of Neel herself.
Alice Neel liked to say that she was a century, and in many ways she was. She was born into
a proper Victorian family and came of age during suffrage. The quintessential bohemian,
she spent more than half a century, from her early days as a WPA artist through her Whitney
retrospective in 1974, until her death 10 years later, painting, often in near obscurity,
an extraordinarily diverse population, from young black sisters in Harlem, to the elderly
Jewish twin artists Raphael and Moses Soyer, to Linus Pauling, creating an indelible portrait
of 20th century America. Neel's hundreds of portraits portray a universe of powerful personalities
and document an age. Neel painted through the Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights
Movement, the sexual revolution of the 60s, feminism, and the feverish 80s. Fiercely democratic
in her subjects, she portrayed her lovers, her children, her Spanish Harlem neighbors,
pregnant nudes, crazy people, and famous art world figures, all in a searing, psychological
style uniquely her own. From Village legend Joe Gould with multiple penises, to Frank
O'Hara as a young poet, from porn star Annie Sprinkle gussied up in leather, to her own
nude pregnant daughter in law, Neel's portraits are as arrestingly executed as they are relentlessly
honest. Neel's life and career were as full of Sturm and Drang as the century she powerfully
captured in paint. Neel managed to transcend her often tragic circumstances surviving the
death of her infant daughter Santillana, her first child by the renowned Cuban painter
Carlos Enriquez, the breakup of her marriage, a nervous breakdown resulting in several suicide
attempts for which she was institutionalized, and the terrible separation from her second
child Isabetta. Although Neel suffered enormously, she never became a victim. Unlike Frida Kahlo,
whose work brilliantly fetishized her personal pain, Neel transformed her deepest wounds
into her most humanistic work. And unlike Mary Cassatt, who beautifully chronicled family
life in the 19th century but never married or had children, Neel painted from firsthand
experience the vicissitudes and rewards of marriage and motherhood. In every aspect of
her life Neel dictated her own terms, from defiantly painting figurative pieces at the
height of abstract expressionism, convincing her subjects to disrobe, which many of them
did, including Andy Warhol, to becoming a single mother to two sons. No wonder she became
the de facto artist of the feminist movement. Very much in touch with her time, Neel was
also always ahead of it. Although she herself would probably have rejected such labels,
she was America's first feminist multicultural artist, a populist painter for the ages. I
painted the neurotic, the mad, and the miserable. I painted the others including some squares.
Like Chichikov, I'm a collector of souls, she liked to say. Alice Neel was born into
a tiny town outside Philadelphia at the turn of the century, during the Victorian age when
women were permitted to do little else but marry and bear children. I don't know what
you expect do in the world, Alice. You're only a girl, Neel's mother warned her. She
might as well have waved a red flag at a bull. Neel later said the comment made her ambitious.
Neel was conventionally pretty, but from an early age her quirks were apparent. I would
have a convulsion if a fly lit on me, she said. The tale of Christ nailed to the cross
would send me into violent weeping. But despite her psychological and emotional insecurity,
Neel always knew she wanted to be an artist. I don't know where it came from, but when
I was five or six my most important Christmas present would be the coloring book. Neel found
Colwyn to be completely stifling. In the spring it was beautiful, but there was no artist
to paint it, and once a man exposed himself in a window, but there was no writer to write
it. There was no culture there, I just despised it. Her life and career were a violent rebellion
against the values of her drab hometown with its numbing normalcy and rigid constraints.
Although she frequently returned home, seeking comfort from her mother between recurrent
crises, she was hell bent on escaping it. Neel would lead a life that was wild even
by bohemian standards and create a deeply original body of work. That's Neel's parents.
Probably at the time she was about 30. Neel would create a deeply original body of work.
It would be shaped by three potent forces, her relentless and transcendent desire to
paint, her ongoing struggle with the hardships of poverty, and her adamant refusal to conform.
Neel was uncompromising in her absolute drive. In the end, it is that which enabled her to
survive and to leave an enduring mark. Neel went to one of America's first women's art
schools, the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now Moore College. She specifically
chose a school over the more famous Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for several reasons.
I was very beautiful then and all the boys chased me. I chose a woman s school so there
wouldn't be anyone to distract me. Even more importantly, she said, I didn't want to be
taught Impressionism. I didn't see life as picnic on the grass. I wasn't happy like Renoir.
By the time Neel graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design, she would prove that she
had the two qualities she deemed essential for the life of an artist. You know what it
takes it to be an artist? Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil to never give up.
The summer she turned 24, Neel spent three weeks at the Chester Springs Country Art School
located in a picturesque corner of Pennsylvania. Although she completed only half of the course,
her stay there would radically transform her life and her work. It was at Chester Springs
that she met Carlos Enriquez, with whom she felt passionately in love and whom she would
marry the following years. There are no records documenting the initial meeting between Alice
Neel and Carlos Enriquez Gomez, who arrived at Chester Springs after attending business
school in Philadelphia. Carlos like Alice was intent on becoming a serious artist and
came across as an exotic bohemian. But, in fact, he was from one of the wealthiest families
in Havana where his father, a major sugarcane plantation owner, was later physician to Cuba's
president. Even years later, Alice enthusiastically described him as gorgeous and Carlos was,
in fact, tall, dark, and handsome. In high school, he had been nicknamed The Mosquito
as much for his high strung energy as his high pitched voice. He was thin and wiry with
wavy hair and a trimmed mustache. In old black and white photographs, his physical intensity
and dashing nonchalance are striking. A picture of him and Alice as sweethearts at Chester
Springs sitting on their favorite bench under a tree shows him sporting a dapper bow tie.
Carlos was an infusion of vivid color into the needed palette of Alice's life. That was
the first time I really fell in love, she said. But if it was nearly instantaneous,
the first phase of their romance was also short lived. Like Alice, Carlos didn't get
along well with authority figures. Although Alice said he had been expelled from the school
for doing nothing much more than taking walks with her in the evening, he was at logger
heads with the director of the school, and Carlos and Alice had already attracted notice
by their brazen behavior. They cut classes, strolled hand in hand through the woods, arranged
private evening rendezvous and, taking advantage of a costume trunk that was also used for
sketch classes, even showed up at the school's masquerade party in drag. Neel dressed as
a man and Enriquez as a glamorous flapper. Neel often talked about the awful dichotomy
she felts towards motherhood. She stalled for over six months after marrying Carlos
Enriquez before he finally persuaded her to travel with him to Havana. It's difficult
to imagine the intensity of Neel's first impression of Havana. Nothing could have prepared her
for the sheer exoticness of the tropical port. From its flora and fauna to the rich resonance
of its language, the city had a lush lyrical quality in keeping with its lilting omnipresent
music, and it was drenched in light and color. Neel must have been equally overwhelmed by
the extravagant luxury of the Enriquez household. Having grown up in dark, cramped, low ceiling
rooms in a working class town, Neel suddenly found herself not only in a glamorous cosmopolitan
city, but living in a marble floored mansion with gracious rooms, wide hallways, and huge
arched windows. Alice referred to it as a palace. There was even a charming balcony
off the bedroom that she shared with Carlos overlooking a small garden where peacocks
strutted. Within walking distance of the house was the magical Malecon, the curving seaside
balustrade that was the favorite promenade for upper class Cubans. At six each day, the
hour of the promenade, Neel, Carlos, and her in laws would tool along the Malecon in the
Enriquez's chauffeured Rolls Royce. It would be Neel's first and last encounter with such
material wealth. Years later, she still marveled at the Enriquez lifestyle. 'Carlos's father
was the most famous doctor in Havana, Dr. Carlos Enriquez de Gomez. You can't imagine
how they lived, Neel recalled. On the grand scale, you know. The family had seven servants.
One was a cook who just cooked all day. His mother as a girl was dressed by slaves and
they lived in this white palace in El Vedado with peacocks walking in the garden. I had
a room like Romeo and Juliet's with marble floors and a balcony. My God, it was fantastic.
Alice and Carlos lived with his parents for about eight months. As an American, Alice
was certainly not expected to conform to the strict turn of the century etiquette that
until recently had been required of Cuban upper class women, who were not allowed to
roam the city freely, but were either driven to the shops and restaurants or confined to
their homes or to private clubs. Still, Neel's behavior must have been a constant affront
to her affluent, old fashioned in laws. Alice consorted with the servants. She would spend
time in the kitchen with the cook practicing her Spanish. I wasn't made to sit in the patio
and do embroidery, she said. In the evening she would go out to join Carlos and not return
until the wee hours. And there was a much more profound tension. In April, just two
months after she moved to Havana, Neel discovered she was pregnant with her first child. I should
have had some birth control thing because I was then simply an ambitious artist. But
anyway, when I got pregnant in Cuba, that was it. Of course, Carlos's father was a hundred
percent against abortion. But Neel was intent on not letting her pregnancy prevent her from
painting. This is a painting Neel did of her husband Carlos during this time, and it's
very typical of her palette and her rather academic style at the time. She and Carlos
liked nothing better than to take a bus from El Vedado to the poor sections of town, Alice
colorfully dressed in the native garb. Equipped with their paint boxes, like, as she put it,
Van Gogh, they would stroll the streets and paint the street people. All we did was paint
day and night, she said. The scenes in these outlying neighborhoods were in vivid contrast
to the elegant streets of Carlos's home. As Neel described it, There the Afro Cubans would
be dancing. They danced like mad and run into the bushes, you know for what. They used this
strange language, part African and part Spanish. And what dancers, wild, you know. Neel was
particularly taken with the bearing of these Cuban women. They have more self than American
women. They are highly sophisticated. The American woman was weak compared with the
womanliness of the Cuban woman. But for Neel, the real revelation was the community of artists
of which she and Carlos quickly became a part. This was a heady time not just for Neel, but
for Cuban culture itself. We completely lived the vie bohemienne, she said. It was more
civilized there. The writers and poets and artists all got together. This is a picture
of Alice and Carlos you can barely see, and their novelist painter friend Marcelo Pogolotti.
On December 26, 1926, Neel gave birth to a daughter. Her description of child birth is
unsparing. So I had this baby. They are more animal than we are in Havana, and for them
to have a child is the most normal thing in the world. For me, it was a major event. They
don't give anesthesia there, and for me to have a baby without anesthesia was frightful.
In the end, it had been eight hours of agony. About five months later, she and Carlos were
a sensation at the arte nuevo show, where the Vanguardia movement , of which Carlos
was an important part, made its debut. Neel showed some of her portraits of local people
including one of a mother and child. But if the show marked her arrival as a successful
professional artist, it also marked her abrupt departure from Havana. Neel left for America
with Santillana, where eventually Carlos joined her. They moved into a one room apartment
in Manhattan's Upper West Side where their lives as starving artists began in earnest.
Nothing could have prepared Alice and Carlos for the tragedy that occurred that winter
when Santillana, who up until then had been a very beautiful, healthy child, got diphtheria,
then prevalent, although, as Neel bitterly recalled, only a year later the vaccine became
available. Alice must have been terrified when Santillana became ill with symptoms that
could have included nausea, chills, high fever, and neck swelling. Neel tried everything in
her power to take care of her sick daughter. She tried to break Santillana's fever by burning
a spiritist lamp. Neel took the baby, then 10 months old, home to Colwyn, enlisting the
aid of her mother. But Santillana died just shy of her first birthday. The same minister
who married her and Carlos performed the funeral rites for their first child. Neel clearly
remained full of guilt and remorse. In the autobiographical piece she wrote at the time
called Money, Neel hauntingly laments the circumstances that may have led to Santillana's
death. Do you know how much an oil stove cost? About $5. But you see, if I'd had the money,
the green lovely dollars, the shining quarters to buy a coat with, maybe I wouldn't have
caught laryngitis so badly. If we hadn't had to live in one little room, maybe the baby
wouldn't have caught it like she did, and then if I could have paid a doctor, I wouldn't
have been so slow to call one. And then it was so cold, oh, so cold. If only I'd had
an oil stove to keep the room warm at night. Oh my God, a black oil stove haunts me. Well,
she died mostly from the goddamn discomfort. How do you expect one to feel about money?
After that, his family sent him some, but I didn't like to eat because I knew the baby
dying had earned those meals for us. Santillana was buried in the family plot in Drexel Hill,
Pennsylvania. There are no tombstones marking any of the Neel family graves, perhaps because
they couldn't afford them. In the beginning, I didn't want children. I just got them. But
when she died, it was frightful, Neel said. The coming year would produce several memorable
watercolors as Neel attempted to process her intense grief. But the painting that most
powerfully expresses her despair is the clay colored Futility of Effort, based on an early
sketch Neel made when Santillana died. Painted a full two years later, the picture expresses
the primal feeling of failure that overwhelms any parent whose child, defying the natural
order of things dies first, rendering for naught all the care and nurturing it has been
given. Neel here conflates her subconscious guilt with a newspaper account of a child
strangling to death between two bedposts. In Neel's rendition, it looks like the child
has died in its own crib. There's the vaguest outline of an adult heedless outside the door,
and the window is a black hole in space, as much a reminder of the vaginal opening through
which a child enters the world as the void following death. As Neel later said, Even
Picasso only used gray and white when he did the Guernica. Color is just too cheerful and
happy for this sort of situation. I had that child in Havana and she died in New York just
before she was a year old of diphtheria. There's a picture I made three years later that's
a distillation of that and so much else, the Futility of Effort. Into it went the amount
of effort you put into having a child, pregnancy, all the rest. Then the tragedy of losing it,
everything, everything. As she wrote in a poem around that time, Oh, I was full of theories
of grand experiments to live a normal woman's life, to have children, to be the painting
and the painter. I've lost my child, my love, my life, and all the goddamn business that
makes life worth living. It's not surprising that Neel got pregnant with her second child
almost immediately, by late February 1928, just three months after Santillana's incomprehensible
death. After Santillana's death, I was just frantic. All I could do was get pregnant again,
she said, calling her situation at the time a trap. Neel gave birth to Isabella Lillian
Enriquez on November 24th, 1928. She and Carlos called their daughter Isabetta. According
to her birth certificate, issued on December 3rd, Isabetta was born at Fifth Avenue Hospital
to Alice Hartley Neel, age 27, housewife, and Carlos Enriquez, age 28, artist. But when
Isabetta was about two and a half years old, Neel's life took another traumatic turn. The
plan, or so Alice thought, was for Carlos to take Isabetta to Havana to visit his parents,
who had never met her. Neel was to join them there, and then the family would travel to
Paris. It seems, though, that Carlos had something else entirely in mind. He left Isabetta with
his two sisters, moving to Paris alone. I realized that was just the end of everything.
I was left with the apartment, the furniture, a whole life, and it was finished, because
he was very weak, and I was abandoned, Neel said. She had lost not only her husband, but
for the second time in two and a half years, a daughter. She would only see Isabetta, who
was brought up by Carlos's sisters, Julia and Silvie, several more times during her
lifetime. In the first weeks after Carlos left, Neel, who seemed to be in complete denial,
initially reveled in her freedom to paint whenever she pleased. That her life with Carlos
and Isabetta was over was too terrible to comprehend. You see, I'd always had this awful
dichotomy. I loved Isabetta. Of course I did. But I wanted to paint, she bluntly said. The
double loss of both Carlos and Isabetta soon triggered a complete nervous breakdown. Neel
was hospitalized and tried to commit suicide several times, once by sticking her head in
a gas oven, and once by swallowing shards of glass. She then spent a year in a private
institution. She would not see Isabetta again until she was nearly six years old. Still,
when she did see her daughter, her response was more that of an artist than a mother.
She immediately painted her. It's a truly remarkable artistic gesture, as if Neel were
laying claim to the very essence of the girl who was at this time her only child, forging
her bond to Isabetta by rendering her in paint. And what must it have been like for Isabetta,
who had had no contact with her mother in four years, a long time in such a young life,
to have stood there naked and vulnerable as Neel focused her full attention on her daughter
in order to paint her? Perhaps that explains the strong, if not defiant, look on her face.
It was clearly an important picture for Neel, since she made sure it was photographed, not
knowing it would later be destroyed by her lover, Kenneth Doolittle, in a jealous rage
over her relationship with another man. And after its destruction, she repainted an almost
exact replica of the original, if anything strengthening her daughter's thrusting pose.
The notorious painting has an uneasy haunted resonance. Neel later remarked that at first,
galleries refused to show it because it was indecent. And later they knowingly referred
it as Lolita. Neel would never again paint Isabetta, whom she would only see two more
times during either of their lifetimes, and it is perhaps fitting that the nude portrait
she made of her daughter stands out as one of the most striking images of her career.
Soon after Neel was released from the sanitarium, she fell in love with a Marxist sailor named
Kenneth Doolittle. They moved to Greenwich Village in 1934. At the time, the Village
was Bohemia Central. Almost every artist and writer of any importance lived there, however
briefly, including Jack London, Norman Mailer, Edgar Allen Poe, and Alan Ginsberg, and such
artists as Winslow Homer, Arshile Gorky, and Diego Rivera. Through Kenneth, Alice met a
circle of bohemians and Communist labor organizers, many of whom she painted. Although Doolittle
was not himself an artist per se, he knew everyone in the neighborhood, which was virtually
crawling with painters, poets, and eccentric characters, including Kenneth Fearing and
Joe Gould, of whom Neel made one of her most famous portraits, branding for all time the
tiny, self described author of The Oral History of the World as a man with multiple organs.
Gould later called the nude painting an under crowned masterpiece, predicting that someday
it would hang in the Whitney, where in fact it hung during Neel's 2000 retrospective.
In it Gould, with a devilish sparkle in his eyes, sits on a stool, his three prominent
penises like so many Russian onion shaped domes, his name and the date of the painting
emblazoned between his legs. On either side of the nude oral historian, his body from
the waist down is repeated as a framing motif. He's clearly uncircumcised in both of these
half nudes. Neel later said it was an advertisement against circumcision. In one hand, he's clutching
a cigarette holder, also, of course, phallic. Neel sometimes humorously referred to the
painting as variations on an old theme, or the source of Russian architecture, since
she said his testicles looked like St. Basil's upside down. Essentially homeless, Gould depended
on his friends and the kindness of strangers, constantly begging alms to support himself
and his supposed historical opus. Neel helped him by altering some of his hand me down clothes
and feeding him spinach and vinegar. Gould's usual diet was a Depression special, tomato
soup, made by pouring ketchup into hot water, a habit which did not endear him to the local
eateries. Neel quoted Gould as being fond of saying, In the summer I'm a nudist, and
in the winter I'm a Buddhist. Gould's story would later be memorialized by the writer
Joseph Mitchell in two famous New Yorker pieces, Professor Sea Gull and Joe Gould's Secret.
Although Gould was notorious in the Village as the author of his perpetually in progress
Oral History of the World, Mitchell ultimately came to the conclusion that the book was apocryphal.
"'All Gould ever wrote were a small number of essays about his own life, from his father's
death to his own time at Harvard. A few of these pieces were in fact published in literary
magazines of the time, but Gould's major activity was constantly and compulsively revising them,
leaving numerous iterations scattered at the homes of his friends. Neel's portrait is thus
a canny though unconscious metaphor for Gould's obsessively repetitive endeavors. Wrote Mitchell
of the portrait, which he saw many years later, Anatomically, the painting was fanciful and
grotesque, but not particularly shocking, except for the plethora of sexual organs.
It was a strict and sober study of an undernourished middle aged man. It was the expression on
Gould's face that was shocking. A leering, gleeful, mawkishly abandoned expression, half
Satanic and half silly. Miss Neel had caught this expression. As Neel told Mitchell at
the time, I call it Joe Gould, but I probably should call it, a portrait of an exhibitionist.
I don't mean to say that Joe was an exhibitionist. I'm sure he wasn't, technically. Still, to
be perfectly honest, years ago, watching him at parties, I used to have the feeling that
there was an old exhibitionist shut up inside him and trying to get out, like a spider shut
up in a bottle. A frightful old exhibitionist, the kind you see on the subway. And he didn't
necessarily know it. That's why I painted him that way. Joe Gould's tale was also told
in the movie, Joe Gould's Secret, in which Susan Sarandon plays Neel. Kenneth Fearing
was at the time a well known poet, who is now mostly known for his noir novel, The Big
Clock, which became a movie in which there was an over the top artist named Louise Patterson,
based on Neel, replete with a vermin infested loft and four love children fathered by different
partners, just like Neel. Neel was quite fond of Fearing. Her remarkable portrait, with
its symbolist iconography and a bleeding skeleton in place of a heart, is reminiscent of Frida
Kahlo's work. Neel has portrayed a tiny infant by his elbow, his wife had borne him a son
the night before, and put characters from his poems in the foreground, with a nearby
El train in the background. When Fearing saw the painting, he told Neel to, quote, take
that Fauntleroy out of my heart. The reason I put it there, Neel later explained, was
that even though he wrote ironic poetry, I thought his heart bled for the grief of the
world. Both the Fearing and Gould paintings were done during the Depression, which was
at its peak in the winter of 1932, just before Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered the White
House. Neel had been in the Village almost a year. The unemployment record was estimated
as close to 25 percent, some 15 million people. It was common to see entire families evicted
from their homes. By early 1933, 10,000 artists were out of work. Audrey McMahon, whom Neel
called Arsenic and Old Face, became the regional director of the New York Department of the
WPA. Neel was first on the Public Works of Art project, or PWAP, which she signed up
for the day after Christmas 1933. In its intention and operation, the PWAP was the precursor
to one of the greatest creations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, the Works Progress
Administration's Federal Art Project, which began in August of 1935, and ended in 1943.
The WPA was key to the survival of a whole generation of artists, and like its famous
murals, had an epic sweep. It's almost impossible to overestimate the wide ranging effect of
this unprecedented national patronage system on the lives and works of the artists involved,
and on the cities in which they lived. A phenomenal amount of art was produced by some 5,000 artists,
2,500 murals, over 17,000 sculptures, 108,000 paintings, 200,000 prints, and two million
silk screen posters. In New York City alone, artists painted 200 murals in public buildings,
and produced more than 12,000 paintings, 2,000 sculptures, and some 75,000 graphics works.
Neel was on the WPA's Easel project. According to employment records, she was on the project
from September 1935 through August 1942, making her one of the first artists on the WPA, and
one of the very last to get off it. Neel's years in the Village were thus literally framed
by the far reaching political and social consequences of Roosevelt's revolutionary New Deal. Although
she often compared her humanism to that of Balzac, to a great extent Neel was in spirit,
sense, and sensibility what one might call a Roosevelt painter. Her worldview was shaped
by that era, and she practiced, nearly from the inception of her New York art career,
the genre which came to be known, and was ultimately marginalized, as social realism,
a politically conscious movement characterized by its unsparing representation of social
injustice and its hero worship of the poor and working class. This is Pat Whelan. He
was head of the Waterfront Workers Union. Major artists of the movement at the time
included Ben Shahn, Moses Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, and
Isabel Bishop. Unlike many of its proponents, however, Neel went on to evolve her own transcendent
style. Still, there are certain constants in her work that date back to the WPA period.
She never veered from the brutally penetrating gaze she had developed during these Depression
years, and her subjects were a deliberately diverse and democratic mix, including many
fellow travelers in the labor and civil rights movements. The era's influence on Neel's work
extends past content to form. Neel took a page from WPA photographers like Walker Evans
and Dorothea Lange, and focused on searingly honest portraits of common people. Typically
Neel ran afoul of authorities on several occasions, including breaking the rule against painting
nudes, and according to one supervisor, using too much blood in a fish market scene. Some
years later, when Neel discovered her WPA work being sold for canvas, she bought back
that painting, a scene reenacted by Elsa Lancaster in the movie of Fearing's The Big Clock, and
restored the blood. Neel's relationship with Kenneth Doolittle ended due to her involvement
with a man named John Rothschild. This is, of course, John Rothschild. But although Neel
remained lifelong friends and sometimes lovers with Rothschild, he was not one of her major
romantic partners. Her next partner, whom she actually met while out on the town with
John in late 1935, was Jose Santiago Negron, who would father her son Richard. In Jose,
she found an irresistible combination of the working class and the elegant, the sexual
and the spiritual. She lost no time finding her way back to the nightclub where they had
seen him perform. Slim hipped as a matador and turned out in a fancy ruffled shirt, Jose
played the guitar and sang quaint Spanish folk songs at a place called La Casita. He
was 10 years Neel's junior and worlds apart from the relatively staid John, with his bald
pate and habitual pipe. The seductively handsome musician was the stereotype of an inappropriate
choice for a mate, but Neel couldn't restrain herself. Physically at least the slender,
dark, exotic Jose reminded Neel of Carlos, her first great love. You know what he was?
He was a substitute for my Cuban husband, although they were completely different, she
said. And years later she still took credit for making the first move. I went to the nightclub
with John and I had on a silver lame dress that was beautiful, she said. And Jose was
charmed by all this wealth and elegance. The dress, of course, had been bought for Neel
by John. Toward Jose I made my one aggressive action. I went down there one night, to that
nightclub, and I knew Jose was going to want to come home with me, and he did. Neel was
soon spending the wee hours at La Casita, mesmerized by Jose and the other acts of the
club. I wish I had a record of his playing. I was in the nightclub every night when he
played. I did the tango, the rumba, all those dances. Richard is the product of nightclubs,
she later joked. Not long after Alice met Jose, he moved into her apartment on West
17th Street. In just a few months Jose had achieved what John Rothschild hadn't in his
several year courtship. I guess he captured Alice's heart with his bohemian singing, and
whatnot, says Jose's nephew. By the end of 1938, Neel was pregnant again. Perhaps anticipating
the birth of her child, or because, as she had lamented, the Village had become too honky
tonk, Neel abandoned downtown and bohemia to take up residence in Spanish Harlem, where
she would remain for 24 years. Jose would leave Neel when Richard was only four months
old, but she remained close to his family including his brother Carlos. Neel's haunting
T.B. Harlem, which is this painting, shows Carlos after his lung was removed and is one
of the most powerful paintings in her long and extraordinarily fruitful Spanish Harlem
period. For the next two dozen years many of Neel's subjects would be those who lived
immediately around her, from family members to neighbors to people she saw in the street.
As Neel explained about her move to Spanish Harlem, You know what I thought I would find
there? More truth. There was more truth in Spanish Harlem. Neel had a great affinity
for both the people and the place. Her Spanish Harlem paintings are uniformly strong, although
often brooding. Her recording of her multicultural milieu brings to the fore her social conscience,
her empathy for the underdog, and her love of Latin culture, starting from her earliest
days with Carlos in Cuba. Whether they are of neighborhood children or her own extended
family, such as Jose's sister Margarita with her three young children, Neel's images from
her 22 years in the neighborhood rank among her best work. Neel's personal life, like
her art, owed a debt to the WPA. Neel met Sam Brody at a WPA meeting in January 1940,
scarcely a month after Jose had left. Brody would father her next child and be her partner
for the next two decades. 'There was, Neel recalled, an immediate attraction. Just a
few weeks after meeting Neel, Brody moved into the apartment at 10 East 106th Street.
Samuel Brody was in many ways Neel's ideal match in terms of intellect and interests.
His sophisticated discourse was a welcome relief from what Neel called the poor intellectual
fare of Spanish Harlem. But he had a deeply destructive side that would take a terrible
toll on both Neel and her sons. There was something else in Sam that Neel must have
recognized instantly, an infallible radar for sensing someone's vulnerabilities. But
while Neel confined her most stringent analysis of people, which sometimes bordered on crucifixion,
to the canvas, Brody resorted to a full frontal verbal assault. Few people could tolerate
it. He was so smart. When he'd pick on people, he'd know exactly the bad spot in them, Neel
said. There was something uncanny in his capacity to tear people down. Sam was also known for
going after people physically. On more than one occasion he violently chased would be
collectors of Alice's work out of the house. Brody's temper and jealousy expressed itself
in other ways than brandishing knives at visitors. He took a violent dislike to Richard, and
as time went on he abused Richard, Neel said. In Andrew Neel's 2007 documentary, Alice Neel,
Richard spoke for the first time publicly about being the victim of Sam's physical,
not sexual, abuse, which had started when he was an infant and continued until he left
home for boarding school at 16. He used to kick me under the table all the time. He kicked
me under the table and one time I screwed up enough courage to say, Stop it. Well, Alice
had to go out that evening and Sam beat me up. He really did. It was intermittent, but
it was physical violence and it was directed at Alice and it was certainly directed at
me. But Richard didn't need to put this abuse on the record. Neel herself had already done
so from the very beginning in several drawings and paintings done in 1940, her first year
with Brody. In the disturbing painting The Minotaur a crazed looking horned Brody with
a bristling black heart in a clenched fist anchors the canvas. Over his right shoulder
effectively blocked from rescue by Sam's body a terrified Richard screams and cries. When
Brody later discovered this painting he tried to destroy it, but Neel patched it back together
again. Still, in January 1941, about a year after meeting him, Alice was pregnant with
Brody's child. On September 3rd, Neel gave birth to Hartley Stockton Neel. Shortly afterwards
the family moved to East 107th Street in Spanish Harlem. The birth of Hartley did nothing to
ameliorate Sam's feelings towards Richard. Sam's attitude toward Hartley was entirely
different from his attitude toward Richard and this created a very difficult situation,
said Neel in an uncharacteristic understatement. It was the threat of physical injury that
terrorized me, Richard says now. I mean, he could say, Filthy Puerto Rican, and make fun
of Spanish people and stuff like that. It's you're small and he's big, and you're helpless.
When I was a kid Alice told me there's a society for the protection of children. She said it
dozens of times. And I said I want to go there. She had the police up once, Richard recalls.
At one point, according to family legend, Sam even broke Richard's collarbone. It would
be story time and instead of hearing Little Bear I would hear about how my collarbone
was broken, or how whenever Sam came into the house I threw up, Richard says. If Neel
was so miserable, but even more to the point, if she saw Sam physically hurting her son
Richard, why did she remain in such a destructive situation? Part of me is very inert, Neel
said, I had the two children, I had the house, I had the basis of living. I wasn't going
to leave that or give it up or change it. Do you understand? Hartley frequently came
to Richard's rescue. Sam discriminated against Richard in many ways, Hartley says. You know,
Richard and I stuck together very much, but at times it was a situation that was just
awful. That's all I can say. In the documentary Richard states it bluntly, The fact is she
tolerated this person she knew was abusing me for years and years. Still, as adults,
both Hartley and Richard have nothing but praise for their mother, whom they adore and
revere. If she had been satisfied with a paradigm of what women were supposed to be in her era,
says Hartley, she would have been nothing, OK? Nothing. She might have been the greatest
housewife and mother and all of that. This was the other side of the coin. Richard even
goes so far as to say that despite the suffering he experienced as a child, having Alice as
a mother was a worthwhile tradeoff. She was a good mother. She was a very good friend
to me and the fact that she might not have been able to give me the protection I might
have gotten somewhere else, that's a fact. But suppose I got the protection and I didn't
get something else. It was a gift to have her as a mother, certainly. There's no question
about it. Neel's final WPA assignment, in the summer of 1943, was to scrape armbands
worn by guards in case of a German raid. I joined the WPA to paint masterpieces, not
scrape armbands, she said. Instead she spent all day chatting with fellow artists, turning
in an already corrected bundle at end of the day. Neel immediately went onto public welfare
which she would continue to receive through the 1950s. It was the end of an era. Neel
had several shows in the early 1940s and 50s before she was plunged into complete oblivion.
The postwar politics and advent of abstract expressionism wiped social realism off the
map, but Neel never stopped painting, accumulating hundreds of portraits in her apartment. It
was a difficult time for figure paintings, but Neel never gave up her commitment, not
just to figure painting, but to portraiture. She was, she always said, first and foremost
a humanist. It wasn't until the early 60s, when figurative painting, including pop art,
resurfaced, that Neel began what would ultimately become her triumphant comeback. Her technique
had continued to evolve and by the 1960s she was painting portraits that even today look
modern and contemporary. By the mid 60s Neel had established her mature style, creating
a series of canvasses that are among her best known. This painting of Hartley, done in 1966
when he was a medical student at Tufts, is indicative of the light palette and fluid
lines Neel now incorporated into her work. This portrait of Richard was done in the 1970s.
Neel would finally find her place in the public spotlight thanks to the feminist movement
of the early 1970s, which fully embraced her as a feminist icon. Although Neel had conflicted
feelings about the movement itself, she said she'd been a feminist long before the movement
arose and ridiculed Judy Chicago for doing nothing but, quote, painting her pussy, she
took full advantage of the prominent pedestal feminism provided, painting many of its movers
and shakers, from her 1970 Time Magazine cover of Kate Millet, to her portraits of Bella
Abzug and the influential feminist art critic Linda Nochlin and her daughter Daisy. Her
portrait of her daughter in law, Nancy Neel, painted in 1971, is a signature painting of
this period. Note the shadow of Richard hovering in the background. Neel was adept at capturing
the anxieties of motherhood, and her pregnant nudes, both genre bending and taboo, are among
her greatest works. The pregnant nude provided her with a unique and powerful image, literally
a physical embodiment of women's basic conflicts. Just as she had chronicled the beats and bohemians
in the Village in the 1930s, Neel spent much of the 1960s and 70s painting members of the
art world, including the artist who perhaps epitomized the second half of the 20th century.
That's Frank O'Hara, who she painted in 1960. Who at the time was not just a poet but a
very influential art critic and she really hoped he would help get her into The Museum
of Modern Art, and he didn't. And that's Red Grooms and Mimi Gross, at least 10 years before
they got divorced, although as you can see they're not getting along too well here. Neel
was famous for being able to capture some of the uneasiness between couples. So now
we're going to get to the artist who epitomized the second half of the 20th century, Andy
Warhol. It's an astonishing portrait on every level and one of Neel's personal favorites.
Warhol offered to strip to the waist, revealing the scars from the assassination attempt by
Valerie Solanas two years earlier, as well as the surgical corset that he was now forced
to wear. Neel exaggerated these disturbing details to indelible effect. She also painted
one of the most voyeuristic and perceptive artists of the 20th century with his eyes
tightly closed. She gives the androgynous Warhol an almost feminine form with small
drooping breasts and wide hips. And perhaps alluding to Warhol's own beginnings as a commercial
illustrator who did shoe advertisements for I. Miller, she rendered his shoes in beautiful,
shiny detail. The portrait is memorable for Neel's nervy perspicacity in depicting Warhol's
vulnerability as a perpetual outsider like herself and as a literal victim of his own
celebrity. But Warhol's input is also key, his courageous self exposure is in itself
an artistic act. Of all Neel's paintings this portrait comes the closest to collaboration.
In 1974, Neel got the Whitney Retrospective many thought she had long deserved, and that
the feminists had aggressively lobbied for. And by the 1980s she was justifiably famous.
Painting such public figures as Mayor Koch and having the ultimate celebrity experience,
appearing on Johnny Carson twice not long before her death. Neel did some of her strongest
and most provocative work in her final decade or so. Her painting of Annie Sprinkle in full
fetish gear and with pierced labia was done in 1982. She never stopped painting prolifically
right up to the time of her death. In fact, her final portrait is that of her attending
physician. I'm going to close with a paragraph or two that I'm going to read straight from
the book that takes place very close to the end of her life when Neel was actually, unlike
most artists, at the peak of her powers. And I think this passage describes one of her
best paintings ever, done in 1980, but also sort of sums up her extraordinary creative
drive. One of the last paintings Neel made was one of her rare self portraits. At 80,
Neel cast as relentless an eye on herself as on the hundreds of subjects of her long
career. Perched on a chair, the artist known for her scathing nude portraits is stripped
down to her quintessence. Naked but for her glasses, a paintbrush, and a rag, she bravely
renders herself with neither clothing nor props. Her aging body, equipped just with
the tools of her craft, her vision, and her deftly wielded implements, as if to make the
definitive statement of self expression. I paint, therefore I am. The flesh may sag,
may, as Neel put it, be dropping off the bone, but the artist and her ability to paint remain
forcefully intact. It's a radical departure from the standard artist's self portrait,
and in its stark veracity beautifully illustrates Neel's original and enduring American vision.
The road that I pursued and the road that I think keeps you an artist is that no matter
what happens to you, you still keep on painting, she once said. Thank you. I guess there's
time for some questions if anybody has any. And then I also can sign books if anybody
wants to buy them or if you brought your own with you that's also fine. Does anybody have
a question? Yeah? One thing that struck me in your lecture was the fact that two of Alice
Neel's lovers destroyed her paintings. The first one, that her lover in the Communist
Party. Only one actually. Oh well, that's true, Sam did destroy one painting. It just
strikes me as so, it sounds unique. I was just wondering if you can think of any other
artists with that kind of, with a loved one. Well it certainly shows Neel's extraordinary
tolerance level for abuse, which goes a little way towards explaining the fact that she allowed
Sam to abuse Richard. But it's not unheard of. I can't give you an exact example, but
I have read in literature, not just of artists, but of writers, destroying each other's work
or their own work. It does happen and it is of course a crime. And you know, a creative
crime as well. And her family has never ever forgiven Kenneth Doolittle for that, and in
fact I went out of my way in the book to do a whole chapter or portion of a chapter on
Kenneth Doolittle because Neel spent most of the rest of her life just saying how he
was this crazy guy who destroyed all her work, whereas in fact he was a Spanish war hero
and one of the organizers of the 1199 Hospital Workers Union, and after his relationship
with Neel, led a very admirable life. He was a great husband, he was a great father. He
was a communist and was blacklisted, but I think that she just pushed his buttons. I
mean, she was extremely promiscuous, she was flagrantly cheating on him. And I think at
the time she might also have been pregnant and aborted his child. There were a lot of
things that were going on. Yeah, it's unforgivable, but she not only later forgave him many years
later, but she gave him John Rothschild's clothes after John Rothschild died. John Rothschild
being the guy she was cheating on him with. So Neel was a very complicated woman, to put
it mildly. She sounds like a very reluctant feminist, if she was that. But did she ever
acknowledge a debt of gratitude for the backing that she received from feminists? Well that's
a kind of barbed question. I mean, not really. She, I mean, May Stevens, who was a feminist
and is still a wonderful painter living in New Mexico, said of Alice Neel, she wasn't
a feminist she was an Alice Neelist. And one of her most famous feminist acts was, in 1972
there was the first conference for women in visual arts at the Corcoran, and it was one
of Neel's first opportunities to show her work to a willing and ready audience. And
she had to be dragged off the stage, she completely hogged the stage. She showed 40 years of work.
They had to pull her off the stage, and then she peed in the hall of the Corcoran, publicly,
which is still sort of notorious lore in feminist literature. And the feminist writer Mary Garrard
turned this into kind of like a badge of courage and said that Neel did this because she was
like Jackson Pollock, and she showed that a woman artist really could be like a male
artist, totally free of constraint. But no, I think she understood that she was benefiting
from feminism, but she always went out of her way to say that she was a feminist before
anybody else was and that this was just stupid, to only look at your private parts, and you
should look at the Third World, and she had done that, and you know critics were stupid
to think. So no, she didn't really give feminism the credit it should have gotten, because
without feminism Neel would not have gotten back into the limelight. That's what brought
her back in, apart from figurative painting. Anybody else? Yeah. I wanted to ask you, do
you think that art historians have given her any credit for actually influencing another
generation of funky or distorted. No, not enough. Because I'm looking at, you know,
I'm thinking, Lucian Freud. Absolutely. I m seeing John Currin. Why isn't. John Currin,
Lisa Yuskavage , Eric Fischl, Elizabeth Peyton. She was doing it before any of these artists.
She did it her whole life, and she gets no historical credit. Well, she will. I mean
in my book, the epilogue, which I hope those of you who buy the book read, because it sort
of I guess gives a summary of her place in art history, I give her full credit for that
and I say that she influenced a whole generation of artists including Eric Fischl and John
Currin and Elizabeth Peyton in particular. And you can decide who is the better portrait
painter. But I think that it took so long for Neel to get into the literature at all,
even as a major 20th century artist, that it's just going to take a while longer for
people to refine it and add nuance to what her place is. One of the ways I became interested
in her, was that all of my friends who were painters idolized her. And I wouldn't say
she influenced Lucian Freud, but certainly they are connected, and she's connected with
Francis Bacon as far as I'm concerned, too. I mean, there are lots of overlaps in treatment
of the figure. Any other questions? OK, you first, and then you. I think it's really interesting
the choice of subjects, and the diversity, and the range of that, do you feel like it
was relationships that she cultivated around the subjects she portrayed or how would that
sort of community? As Rebekah said in her introduction, she was the first multicultural
painter, and part of it had to do with that she considered herself a humanist and she
was interested in the human condition in whatever form it took. Also, I think the things that
informed her sensibility and her work were Latin culture, which she was introduced to
very young in Havana, at a really incredible moment in Cuban culture, which I have a whole
chapter on. I mean, what came out of Cuban culture at that time was extraordinary and
Carlos went on to be one of the most famous 20th century painters in Cuban history. So
Latin culture sort of radicalized her, as did the Depression. I think having a complete
breakdown and being in a hospital in this suicidal ward and then being in a private
institution kind of sensitized her to other people's psychic wounds. And I think poverty,
too, she was poor her entire life, and she was very, very aware of what the people around
her went through including her Spanish Harlem neighbors. So that was what interested her,
and she always said, I want to paint the Zeitgeist, I use people as the evidence of my time. So
she was a people collector. That's what she did, she was a collector of souls which is
what she was famously called by Jack Kroll in Newsweek in the 60s. Yeah. I was just going
to reminisce about how she appeared here at the museum in a panel for women painters over
seventy. And the contrast between her and Isabel Bishop was absolutely astounding, because
Isabel Bishop was dressed in this exquisite designer dress with high heels and so on and
was just the portrait of somebody having tea, something like that, and Alice Neel she was
like the Wife of Bath. She portrayed herself, happily, in the most bawdy way possible and
she was quite a performer. Totally. I have a funny anecdote that Paul Resika told me
that's in the book, where Alice Neel used to go down not to the abstract artist club,
but to another group that's escaping my memory at the moment down in the Village in the 60s
and hang out with everybody and talk. She prided herself on talking like a sailor and
always shocked everybody because here was this grandmotherly woman using these curse
words and being extraordinarily vulgar. And so one day she was leaving the club along
with Isabel Bishop and she almost knocked Isabel Bishop over to get in the cab with
her because she really wanted to be considered in the same light as Isabel Bishop, who was
considered a great lady and a great painter. And he just couldn't get over that, he called
Alice, Paul Resika did, Alice Neel, the squeaking wheel, because whenever anything good happened
to her or she got any kind of fame or notoriety, she would call him up and say, Do you hear
that? Time Magazine. So she practically knocked Isabel Bishop over. And she did do a portrait
of Isabel Bishop which Isabel Bishop hated because she said she made her look like she
had mosquito legs. Anybody else? Are you a painter? No, but my parents were both artists
who then became writers, and so I grew up around the smell of paints and easels. Anyone
else. No? OK, well, thanks again. hvGy hut/ hvGy h|\X hut/ h|GJ h|\X h"rY hE)g h"rY h"rY
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