- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

Few American painters’ works are as informatively — and often shockingly — autobiographical as those of Alice Neel, the late New York portraitist.

She led a nonconventional life — one of broken relationships with men and women; legitimate and illegitimate children as well as a miscarriage; mental breakdowns and suicide attempts; life in Cuba and New York City’s Spanish Harlem; wealth and poverty; leanings toward the Communist Party and participation in New Deal art programs; and late recognition and financial security as an artist.

Miss Neel (1900-1984) spelled out her conflicted life, as well as those of her family and friends, in her art.

The intriguing “Alice Neel’s Women” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts shows sometimes astonishing renderings of her most intense, lifelong preoccupation: women. The portraits, described as “a central facet of her body of work that chronicles the evolution of American social mores as well as of her personal and artistic growth,” will both compel and repel.

Her artistic and personal philosophy still startles, as the exhibit shows. Art critic Eleanor Munro writes in her book “Originals — American Women Artists” that Miss Neel told her: “I believe what I am is a humanist. … I think this strange life I’ve had has been a search for experience and I think that all the experience you can have is good for your work because it makes you more of a person. … Provided it doesn’t kill you.”

Feminists tried to claim Miss Neel in the 1970s — she painted portraits of feminist leaders Ann Sutherland Harris and Mary D. Garrard — but she continued single-mindedly to “collect souls,” as she described the process, and bend art history to her unique ends.

She probably was no more conflicted about childbirth and child rearing than most American women of the 1920s and 1930s, but she made it her central subject at the time. She was first married to Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez de Gomez, and she lost her first two children when her eldest daughter, Santillana, died at age 1 of diphtheria and Carlos took her second daughter, Isabetta, to Cuba.

Nonetheless, Miss Neel probed motherhood deeply in the “Mother and Child” Italian Renaissance tradition with her tiny, appealing watercolor of her Gomez family in “The Family” (1927) and two somber oils titled “Mother and Child” (1930) and “The Spanish Family” (1943). They remain her most original, powerful works.

Her sympathetic identification with the disenfranchised still shows in the 1972 “Carmen and Judy,” in which a patient and resigned Carmen, a household helper, lovingly holds her disabled child, Judy, who later died.

Later, after raising sons Richard (born in 1939) and Hartley (born in 1942) as a single mother and educating them at New Hampshire’s High Mowing boarding school, a Rudolph Steiner School predicated on education through art, Miss Neel painted her daughters-in-law and grandchildren with a lighter, brighter palette reminiscent of her contemporary Fairfield Porter — but, unfortunately, not as incisively as her earlier portraits.

She also portrayed pregnant and nude women, although not as sympathetically as Johannes Vermeer and Edouard Manet, in “Nadya and Nona” (1933), “Nadya Nude” (1933), “Childbirth” (1939) and “Claudia Beach, Pregnant” (1975).

Her sexy, expressive “Sue Seely, Nude” (1943) and “Pregnant Maria” (1964) are direct knockoffs of Giorgione’s and Veronese’s reclining nudes and Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass.”

Perhaps most surprising is her own late, nude — what could be called naked — “Self Portrait” at age 81. With only her eyeglasses for “dress” as she engages viewers with her nakedness and eyes, she’s mesmerizing — as is most of her art.

Obviously, her powerful, psychologically charged art cries out for more shows. This first major treatment of her art — of some 80 paintings and drawings — since the 1974 Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective could have been enlarged to advantage.

Somehow, even through difficulties that may have reflected mental problems, Miss Neel became one of her generation’s great portrait painters — her nudes more engaging than Philip Pearlstein’s detached ones and her portraits more riveting than Alex Katz’s superficial pop ones.

Keep an eye on her work.

WHAT: “Alice Neel’s Women”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 15

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 students and seniors 60 and older, free for young people under 18 and members

PHONE: 202/783-5000

ONLINE: www.nmwa.org

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