Alice Neel: How to Persevere and Live the Artist’s Life
On the Life and Times of a Great American Portraitist
“Alice loved a wretch. She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think.” –Ginny Neel
“The self, we have it like an albatross around the neck.”
In the winter of 1931, a 30-year-old painter named Alice Neel was strapped with restraints to a thin mattress in Philadelphia’s orthopedic hospital. Institutionalized by her parents, Neel was raving, incontinent, and suicidal. She would become, arguably, the greatest American portraitist of the 20th century, but was now forbidden by doctors to draw or make art of any kind. Art, the medical establishment believed, was too unsettling for a lovely young blonde like Alice Neel. She was instructed to sew instead.
Neel hated sewing.
She was kept to a strict institutional schedule like a prisoner: awakened for 5 am breakfast, to be eaten with a rubber fork, followed by long days in barred rooms where she was ever watched by some figure of authority. Quite literally maddening for any artist, whose job it is to be observer, not observed.
But Neel needed watching. Released from the hospital, she strode into her parents’ kitchen her first night home and stuck her head in their oven. Her brother found her there not quite dead in the morning (first thinking it was his mother’s legs flung across the linoleum). While her father complained about the coming gas bill, Neel was bundled back to the suicide ward. There she tried swallowing shards of broken glass, then throwing herself down a laundry chute, then auto-asphyxiation by stocking. Nothing worked. “I couldn’t pull long enough or hard enough,” she said. “You cannot commit suicide unless you—in a moment of frenzy—you do something irrevocable.”
She never did, at least not in the sense of suicide. Neel’s irrevocable act was to paint and never stop.
It was as a grad student in New York that I first saw one of Neel’s paintings, a portrait of Andy Warhol. Immediately I adored her. Portraiture is, I confess, my favorite art form, and Neel was an alchemist of the soul. She portrayed things somehow only she could see: the psychology and spirit, the vital essence, of her sitters.
I kept looking from Warhol on the wall to the nearly empty gallery, hoping to catch someone’s eye and ask, Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Neel had captured something no other painting or photo or album cover of the infamous Pop artist had come close to. Andy Warhol, a pale and vulnerable man in all his fragile humanity.
Remarkably, she was just as good when turning that all-seeing eye on herself. She lived long enough to capture one of the most knowing takes on aging ever made, up there with Rembrandt in its cold-eyed view of the sagging self. Eighty years old in this painting, made in 1980, the master portraitist has turned her unsparing scrutiny upon her own still-formidable self. Her fluffy white grandma updo—incongruous on a nude, to say the least—rhymes with the bright white rag dangling from her left hand. Meant for dabbing paint, according to some commentators, the rag is also a flag of surrender. But surrender to what? I expect they mean surrender to aging and the decline of the flesh. But what about the fact that after five decades of dedicated portraiture, this was Neel’s first real self-portrait? That after cajoling dozens of sitters—men, women, and children—to doff their duds, she at last joins them. She has surrendered to her own inspection at long last, there on the same blue-striped loveseat upon which so many others sat for her. Here, finally, Neel sits for herself.
She’s a tough customer. Paula Modersohn-Becker pioneered the nude self-portrait—a brave and revolutionary act—but it was as a woman in bloom, of youth and artistic vigor and motherhood, adhering to more conventional standards of beauty. Neel has nothing left to own with pride. Her body is a fallen landscape of battles gone by, her broad, distended belly rests across flaccid thighs while large, fleshy breasts dangle almost as low. Neel gave birth to four children, and it shows.
Her cheeks are ruddy to almost red, from age or New York weather or a lifetime of hard living, while between those same cheeks, above and below downturned lips, her skin is ghastly green. That green patch is instantly familiar, maybe even a quotation, from Matisse’s famous portrait of his wife from 1905, The Green Stripe. Neel shares Amélie Matisse’s upswept hair, arching eyebrows, pursed lips, and a trio of solid colors arrayed behind her. It’s as if Neel is hooting at her Fauvist friend from the other end of the century, shouting, “Screw abstraction, Hank, we won after all!”
If this painting waves any flag it’s that of portraiture still alive and kicking even after the artists and critics and art historians who “mattered” all believed it stone cold and long buried.
Neel’s high-flown brows are familiar to anyone who’s ever peered into a mirror putting on mascara, an indication of careful attention. Neel must have done this painting by looking in a mirror. For one thing, she disliked working from photographs, desiring the pulse of personhood and emotion beneath real flesh. But also, here she holds her paintbrush in the right hand and Neel was left-handed.
She wears glasses in a nod to old age and honest scrutiny and even waning sexual allure. To quote her contemporary, Dorothy Parker: “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses.” Or to quote feminist art historian (and Neel subject) Linda Nochlin, eyeglasses “are hardly part of the traditional apparatus of the nude.” Neel is being both scrupulous and poking a little fun: Here ya go, male gaze, enjoy.
Unlike Rembrandt’s weary personal testaments to the ravages of time, there’s no sense that Neel feels sorry for herself. What many might consider a ruin of a body is just realism at work, a fact like any other. Though painted in an age when finding something that might still épater le bourgeois was almost impossible, a naked old woman was pretty damned shocking.
“Frightful, isn’t it?” Neel cackled to critic Ted Castle. “I love it. At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.” No one ever revolted more consistently than Alice Neel.
While there’s often some charming mystery to writing about artists of the past, holes in knowledge we can (however unconsciously) fill with our own hopes or ideals, when writing about artists close to us in time, there’s the problem of knowing too much: every cough and letter, every lover and seaside sojourn and trip to the corner store. What, then, with a life like Alice Neel’s, which spanned eight decades, one husband, three fathers of four children, who knows how many lovers and significant friends? There is nothing to do but spin the reel on high speed and hold on tight:
Raised in working-class Pennsylvania, Neel put herself through art school; graduated 1925, married a Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez that same year; moved to Havana, where she was embraced by the Cuban avant-garde, got politically radicalized, had her first show and her first baby, a girl named Santillana; 1927 relocated to New York City, where Santillana died of diphtheria just before her first birthday; the following year had a second daughter, Isabetta, whom Carlos took to meet his parents, then abandoned in Havana while he went on to Paris so that Neel lost two children in less than two years, as well as a husband.
“At first all I did was paint, day and night,” Neel said. She worked in a manic state for months until collapsing with what she called “Freud’s classic hysteria,” but might also be called guilt: “You see, I had always had this awful dichotomy. I loved Isabetta, of course I did. But I wanted to paint.” The firestorm of sorrow, giddiness, and shame finally engulfed her.
How she ended up in a suicide ward and how she got out and how she found success at last all had the same source: “I was neurotic. Art saved me.”
Neel made it out after convincing a social worker she was “a famous artist,” then met a Spanish Civil War fighter and heroin addict named Kenneth Doolittle and moved into his place in Greenwich Village; two years later he burned more than three hundred of her watercolors and slashed over fifty oils; Neel moved in briefly with well-off Harvard grad John Rothschild (her lifelong friend and probable lover), before hooking up with a Puerto Rican nightclub singer named Jose Negron; they had a baby boy called Richard and when he was three months old, Negron abandoned them both in Spanish Harlem; two years later Neel had another son, Hartley, with left-wing filmmaker Sam Brody.
Significantly, both Neel’s sons carry her last name. Through everything, she painted and parented and did what she had to do to survive.
Neel was resourceful, whether it meant working as an easel painter for the WPA, shoplifting, or scaring up welfare, food stamps, or full scholarships for her sons. The Rudolf Steiner School is right next door to the Institute of Fine Arts. I used to pass the Steiner kids on the sidewalk and wonder how those little bohemians found their way to the Upper East Side. But then, how did I? Later, I sent both my children to the same kind of school in San Francisco and taught art history to high school students there for years. Art in Steiner schools is the linchpin of the curriculum, whether the class is English, history, math, or physics. In a sense, Neel sent her kids to her own version of parochial school, one that held art as the holy of holies.
Neel was adept at getting what she wanted, but it took a couple of decades of painting friends and neighbors in Spanish Harlem before she realized a little networking wouldn’t kill her. With a nudge from her therapist, Neel starting asking art world folks in power to take a seat. Shades of shrewd Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.
Neel started in 1960 with poet and newly appointed Museum of Modern Art curator Frank O’Hara. As an art-maker himself and a gay man, maybe he seemed nearer Neel’s regular milieu of outcasts. But Neel depicts O’Hara in perfect profile, a rare formal position for her (though he wears a rumpled gray crewneck) that calls to mind Roman emperors on coins or Renaissance profile portraits. Quite specifically, O’Hara here recalls Piero della Francesca’s Duke of Urbino, who could be looking right back at the MOMA curator across five centuries. Painting O’Hara in profile emphasizes his “strong” nose and jutting chin, as does della Francesca’s Urbino portrait. Both are men of power, though where the Duke of Urbino’s structured red cap is almost crownlike, O’Hara leans back into a spray of purple lilacs. O’Hara’s open, staring eyes are as startlingly blue as a movie star’s (Paul Newman’s spring to mind; O’Hara liked a good movie-star reference), while behind him hangs a formless shadow, a kind of dark double portrait. That shadow looms large for us, knowing that just four years later O’Hara would be dead at age 40, struck by a jeep on the beach at Fire Island.
Maybe Neel intuited O’Hara’s dark near-future, or maybe she was anticipating her own. What worked for Labille-Guiard flopped for Neel. Though O’Hara showed and reviewed many figurative artists in the next few years, he never included Neel in any exhibition, and he never wrote about her work.
Same thing with Henry Geldzahler, curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose portrait Neel painted in 1967. But when she asked him to include her in a career-making show—New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970—two years later, Geldzahler sneered, “Oh, so you want to be a professional.” He did not include Neel in the exhibition.
The slings and arrows of Neel’s professional life were legion. She might have become bitter, but mostly she just kept working. And yet. “I’m not against abstraction,” she said. “What I can’t stand is that the abstractionists pushed all the other pushcarts off the street.” Still, she stuck to her guns, which meant the figurative in all forms.
According to curator Jeremy Lewison, “Many of her best portraits of the period were of gay men and gay couples.” Neel painted O’Hara and Geldzahler, men who might have helped her who happened to be gay, and others, such as critics (and couple) David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock and that saintly (as in Saint Sebastian, or some other tortured soul) portrait of Pop artist Andy Warhol, pale and shirtless in a corset, both from 1970.
But I think her best painting of that year is the dual portrait of gay couple Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd. Though Jackie is in drag on the right (and listed first in the title, which is as disorienting as their presentation and gender-neutral first names), Ritta, on the left, dressed in a boyish striped shirt and jeans, is the softer, more “feminine” of the two.
Both were part of Warhol’s Factory, and Curtis was a glam “Warhol superstar,” but neither had any power in the art world, or the wider world, for that matter. Neel just wanted to paint them. Curtis is done up with blue eye shadow, red nail polish, a smart 1950s-era skirt-and-blouse ensemble, and dark stockings (with a small hole where his right, polished big toe pokes through), but this is no Diane Arbus freak show. The men are as dignified as any Neel sitters, and clearly lovers. Curtis’s right knee juts at an awkward angle toward us so that his lower leg presses against Redd’s. It’s a tender gesture of togetherness. There is a whiff of poignancy, even longing, in Neel’s depiction of their shared affection. It’s especially lovely considering homosexuality was not just an outlaw “lifestyle” then, but quite literally illegal. Being gay meant being seen as at best immoral and quite likely insane (homosexuality was on the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders until 1973).
Not that Neel gave a shit about any of it, not morality or social opprobrium or even legality. Her sons remember FBI agents descending on the apartment at the height of the Red Scare with a thick dossier on Neel’s communist sympathies. Rather than quake or cajole, Neel admired “these two Irish boys” and immediately invited them to sit for her “in their trench coats.” The FBI men declined and quickly exited. Posterity weeps at the loss.
The rise of feminism was at last the perfect storm to raise Neel’s battered boat. Here after all was a woman artist, in the thick of the New York art world for decades, who had been callously overlooked. She’d always been egalitarian in her approach to her subjects: working-class men and women of all races, mothers of all kinds, fine artists of every sex and race, pregnant women, curators and art historians, nudes of all ages, gay men and transvestites, the glory of humanity at every point on the way station of the century, and through it all she’d stuck to her own style, never swayed by theory or fashion. Feminists in the 1970s took up Neel’s cause with vigor, though Neel refused to spout a party line. “I much preferred men to women,” she shrugged. Her contemporaries rightly scoffed at Neel’s feminist branding. Painter May Stevens has said, “She wasn’t a feminist; she was an Alice Neelist.”
Regardless, the movement served Neel well. In 1970, TIME magazine asked her to create their cover on Kate Millett, the Columbia grad student whose dissertation, published as Sexual Politics, was an unlikely bestseller. Last of a dying breed, Neel of course wanted to paint from the living model, but Millett refused. Like a lead singer worried about pissing off her bandmates, she didn’t want to break ranks with the sisterhood by taking the limelight. Never one to pass up on opportunity, Neel settled for a photograph.
By painting the cover for TIME, Neel reached a bigger audience than any contemporary artist could ever dream of, and the portrait of Millett is one of her best-known works. It is, unabashedly, icon-making. Staring, unsmiling, mannish and intense, with her dark hair and white men’s shirt, Millett reminds me most of Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous cover image of Patti Smith on the album Horses a few years later. Both are working-class hotties in crisp white shirts, conveying seriousness of purpose alongside a sexy androgynous glamor. Quite a feat. Perhaps Mapplethorpe had taken note.
Mapplethorpe photographed Neel herself not long before she died of cancer in 1984. It’s a haunting picture, deliberately so. Neel knew she was dying and told Mapplethorpe she wanted to know what she’d look like dead. So she closed her eyes and opened her mouth, in imitation of innumerable 19th-century photographs of the recently deceased. The result is transcendent, like Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa, a moment of piercing rapture and possible pain.
Neel depicted the human in all of us, including herself, the deformed, deranged, beautiful wretches that we are. “I tried to reflect innocently,” Neel once said of her work. She was wickedly good at it.
From Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) by Bridget Quinn, illustrations by Lisa Congdon. Published by Chronicle Books 2017.