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Thoughts Regarding Alice Neel

Alice Neel: Paintings, LA Louver Gallery, Venice, California, May 20-June 26, 2010

Alice Neel’s biography confirms what all true artists know. There will be pain at either end of the equation that attempts to reconcile creativity with survival. For all true artists it is create or die. The difficult negotiation between the need to create and the longing for the promise of domestic stability and companionship has been a source of pain for both artists and their families always. Even the stoics who tough it out by themselves don’t escape loneliness. And for Neel there too existed a marginalization by the declared professionals of the day; the same sycophants who now cannot find praise enough, ignored her work within the confines of her own generation. An unkind adversity many an artist is condemned to suffer.

When standing in front of her paintings I get the sense that everyone who posed for her is implicated in her suffering. When you sat in the chair you enlisted to have your fortune told by a diabolical mind reader who could and would penetrate every barrier unconditionally. When you got up you could not possibly have the same pretensions about yourself that you had before the sitting (Linus Pauling excluded; still deluded by his own insipid smile). And as viewers we too are implicated in this seance of truth and see a particular part of ourselves clearly in the faces on the canvas. With the exception of a few sympathetic children and other chosen innocents, no one is given a pass.

Last but not least is technique: To the uninitiated the paintings may look like the casual improvisations of a well meaning yet untutored primitive. But to those who are in possession of a visual syntax, Alice Neel’s virtuosity is striking and it makes me think of shorthand; shorthand as used to encode quantities of information into a symbolic economy that when deciphered discloses every word and every letter representing the contents of the subject, in its completeness. That’s exactly what she did. She invented a shorthand that permitted her to record every detail of her clinical analysis of what is visible and invisible to the eye and that in turn in the fullness of time unfolds itself in the eye of the viewer.



  1. Charles R. Dickens says:

    The more current portraiture I see the more I realize that artists interpret their subjects using that “tortured soul” all apparently posses. Realists capture the subject as it exists. Impressionists relay their interpretations as they filter it. Ms. Neel seems to find the pain in these subjects through her own unfortunately uncomfortable life. This begs the question; is there really pain as it exists or is Ms. Neel adding her own dementia to these subjects? She appears to add a great deal of her own reality, more than would be expected in these subjects.

    This is however my opinion and interpretation and not based on actually seeing the subjects as they were painted. I merely infer that all have a commonality, not something I would expect for several representative subjects. The only joy present is the old dodger in the beret’ holding his object of lust. We’re not all that perverse, I assure you. Most of us are much more subtle.

    I wonder are all artists tortured or if they don the cloak of pain to become what they perceive an artist to be? Van Gogh was a nut case – a very talented, but a nutcase nonetheless. Is this necessary to create great art or is this a socialization foisted on talented people by their admirers?

  2. When I finished High School, I studied with a number of painters in the late forties, as that was what I wanted to be at the time. The most memorable were Hans Hoffmann, Morris Davidson, & Karl Knaths. Looking at Neel’s paintings is like studying an illustrated manual containing all the compositional “tricks” I learned from these artists, and then some. From Hoffmann’s “lines of force”, Davidson’s “equivocal space”, to Knath’s lavish use of indigo & emerald green… I also learned at that time to “look” at paintings, seeing the illustrated manual in each canvas, differently interpreted, going back to Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, and African sculpture. I see the same compositional rules in Neel. It feels oddly comfy, yet their interpretation as “portraits” is chilling and discomforting. Strange bedfellows. RR

  3. It’s so refreshing to see this selection of Alice Neel’s paintings. She will always be an inspiration. Thanks for featuring it!

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