Alice Neel, Expressionist Figure Painting, Bard College (1983)

Annandale-on-Hudson, New York



 Alice Neel's dramatic paintings of fellow voyagers through the tribulations of 20th Century existence have always provided a telling alternative to the glib trivialities of the majority of modern artists whether realist or abstract.


 The evidence is on display at the Edith C. Blum Art Institute of Bard College in a wonderfully vital exhibition of the artist's encounters with people and urban geography, primarily New York City in the 1920s through the 1950s.


 The exhibition was curated by Linda Weintraub, Institute Director, who made many visits to Neel's studio in upper Manhattan in the process of selecting works that she describes as "crammed in dark corners, in closets, behind couches, covered in dust and cobwebs. I was like Columbus, discovering so many works so little seen. I felt they were something worth sharing."


 And indeed they are. Entering the gallery, enveloped by the many portraits and figure studies, one feels the presence and energy of life, of humanity and its thoughts and feelings, not only of our time, but all time. Neel's is that rare art that allows us to share in both the immediacies and enduring values and realities of life.


 Alice Neel's vision of life has generally been a darker one, a not unexpected reaction, as the artist sought to keep alive her humanity and individuality in a time seemingly intent on devouring both qualities in everyone. Houses and many -- though not all -- of the people seem deeply melancholy or introspective, certainly vividly present whatever their condition of personality or attitude.


 Neel's artistic power is based on the retention of her strength of incisive visual observation and exuberant, perhaps desperate primitiveness of emotion and aesthetics. Somehow, she has remained free and open to the experience of life, unencapsulated by anxiety-inspired, embalming modernist theory that has so deadened the responses of the majority of her contemporaries. Her paintings have a direct, seemingly instinctual design sensibility, the feeling for just the right compositional placement of figure from which she wrings the maximum of realistic and expressive possibilities.


 This is not to say that her paintings are primitive. They are quite sophisticated. But in a disturbingly sterile age, so far removed -- even sealed off -- from the roots of its own humanity, Alice Neel's unfettered, total response to life is like an explosion of vigor from some still-untamed region of the psyche or global Borneo...the resurrection of life within a tomb.


 Always present in the paintings are the individual personalities of the models: the brooding restraint of "Dick Bagley's Girlfriend," the intense will of "Rudolph Christian," the angular sensuality and bird-like brightness of "Al Freer," the heavy-lidded depression of "Sam" and the trance-like "Eddie Zuckermandel," eyes sunk deep in simply-painted shadow, from which his forehead and nose emerge like Vesuvius.


 Nonetheless, all seem related to each other, as Rembrandt's people do, regardless of sex, race or color, by means of the artist's own unique strength and coloration of personality. In this sense, all of Alice Neel's people are her children. If not products of her body, they clearly are the imperfect, often troubled, but beloved offspring of her psyche.


 Some people are disturbed by the depth of feeling and penetrating observation in her work. This is certainly a misapprehension of the primary function of art, which is to reveal life in all its thunderous power. The intense color and reality of forms in nature, whether the human head or an apple, go so far beyond their bland two-dimensional re-creation in bad painting, photographs, television and movies as to be beyond the conception of all but a minority of artists and art lovers. The rest of us walk around in a relatively harmless haze of stereotypes, cliches and conventionally dead perceptions of reality and the world, inevitably to be jolted when confronted by artists of Alice Neel's stature.


 Alice Neel's art offers us the opportunity to confront ourselves, our era and life generally in all its disturbing human and cosmic consequences, providing a solid foundation of revivifying life and reality with which to identify, understand, and, if we wish, launch a renewal.


 Supporters of the dehumanized characteristics of photo-realism, geometric abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism might say, "that's the way the world is today ... dehumanized, impersonal, technologically sterilized. Isn't the function of art to echo or present life as it is?"


 Alice Neel's answer, in effect, through her work, is "Yes, art should express its time, but also transcend it, not mindlessly echo it. When Nazis and Communists take over a country, or try to, does one feed Jews to the ovens or resisters to Siberian labor camps or 'psychiatric' hospitals because that's what monsters do in a monstrous age? Contemporary art, as a whole, is as inhuman, uncaring and incomplete as any atrocity, and as dangerous to the social fabric and the soul of man."


 By reminding us, despite modern art's protestations to the contrary, that we are as human as we ever were, that our capacity for profound response to the significant reality of our lives, art and the world, though shaken, is timeless and intact, Alice Neel's courage and persistence strengthen us in the pursuit of our own obligations and aspirations, give us hope of a better time to come.




Copyright by Don Gray



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