Looking at Art

A ‘Desperate Beauty’

In her portrait of the Gruen family, Alice Neel tempers her penchant for the grotesque with a touch of the sublime.

The Family (John Gruen, Jane Wilson and Julia), 1970.


The three pairs of patent-leather shoes are the most striking detail in Alice Neel’s 1970 portrait of the Gruen family—a whimsical quirk one notices before anything else. The shoes are the first thing Neel noticed, too, when John Gruen, the art critic; his wife, Jane Wilson, the painter and former fashion model; and Julia Gruen, their young daughter (now head of the Keith Haring Foundation) arrived at her apartment to pose. After carefully arranging the three on a loveseat, “she exclaimed, ‘Oh how wonderful! You’re all wearing patent-leather shoes!'” recalls John. “And that was so intriguing to her, and I believe that when she started putting color, she started with the shoes.”

After years of working in obscurity, Neel had triumphantly resurfaced in the ’60s and ’70s with her canny chronicling of the art world and its power brokers. At the time of the Gruen portrait, both Neel and Jane were represented by Graham Gallery in New York. As John—an intimate of such members of the cultural elite as Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Nureyev, Frank O’Hara, and Larry Rivers—recounts, Neel approached him and said, “‘I would like to paint you, your wife, and your child. I have never done a portrait with three people in it.’ So I told Jane, ‘Guess what? Alice Neel wants to paint our portrait,’ and Jane said, ‘oh, how wonderful,’ and Julia said ‘ooh.’ And I said, ‘you are going to come along any time she wants us, because this is going to be history.'”

John was one of the first art writers to single Neel out as exceptional. This was shortly after her second show at Graham, in 1966. “If Miss Neel’s name is not on everyone’s lips, it is not for lack of reputation or productivity,” he wrote in the New York Herald Tribune. He now says, “She draws out the madman or madwoman in people and depicts them that way; it’s her style.”

Neel is known for her incisive psychological portraits, which often border on ruthless. The Family, which will be in the retrospective “Alice Neel: Painted Truths” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is one of her kinder efforts. John, a bright purple scarf draped around his neck, anchors the center of the painting, framed on either side by the strong-featured Jane and the blasé-looking Julia. The three are depicted as dark, smoldering, and intense. By the time Neel painted them, John and Jane were already quite well known as “beautiful people.” Jane had modeled for Vogue and other top fashion magazines, and the couple had been photographed together numerous times for such publications as Harper’s Bazaar by the likes of Diane Arbus, Francesco Scavullo, and Richard Avedon.

“We were very conscious of being the subject matter,” John says. “We had not ever posed except in photography. We were photographed a lot—Jane and Julia and I—and we have beautiful, gorgeous portraits. It was an amazing experience, and we looked forward to going back and being with Alice, and every time, of course, there was more of us on the canvas, and that was wonderful to see. Even Julia was intrigued.”

Neel had prepared a very large canvas; it was the first time she was tackling a triple subject. The painting took five sittings. The Gruens were thrilled with the final image. Says John, “I thought the painting had great strength. We were used to seeing ourselves in photographs as being beautiful.” Adds Jane, “or glamorous. Whereas Alice’s portrait did not make us look beautiful, I think it’s very beautiful, but you know what I’m saying. It’s not Avedon. It’s you, not a model.”

Nevertheless, like most of Neel’s subjects, the Gruens didn’t buy the painting. Neel offered it to them for $1,200, in installments, but they said they couldn’t afford it.

“It’s very powerful,” John acknowledges, “and I don’t know that many people could bring it into their home to live with.”

Still, he says, “I had always loved Alice’s work, because it was a mixture of the sublime and the grotesque. The sublime and the grotesque to me were part of her esthetic, were part of what she was conveying to the world—that people are beautiful and grotesque, that people are poignant and tragic, that they had big interior lives. She gave them big interior lives. She saw the lives in them that even they did not recognize. What emerged was a kind of desperate beauty.”

The portrait, which belongs to the Estate of Alice Neel, was on the cover of the invitation to Neel’s 1970 Graham show, which Warhol (whom Neel also painted in 1970) attended. It was shown in the Whitney Museum’s 1972 annual exhibition, two years before the museum finally gave her a retrospective. Neel later jokingly called the painting “Six Patent Leather Shoes.”

“Alice Neel: Painted Truths” will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from March 21 through June 13. It will then travel to Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the Moderna Museet, Malmö.

Phoebe Hoban’s biography of Alice Neel will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October. She is also the author of Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Viking/Penguin 1998).

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