Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty By Phoebe Hoban St. Martin’s Press, 500 pages, $35
Reading Phoebe Hoban’s riveting portrayal of Alice Neel (1900–84), one veers between admiration for the artist’s determination to live her life on her own terms and horror at her lapses as a mother and responsible adult—she parked her infant daughter outside on a fire escape in the winter, left her three- and five-year-olds home alone, failed to feed them, drank excessively.
In this lively and superbly detailed biography, the first comprehensive exploration of Neel, Hoban examines the complicated life of the free-spirited, iconoclastic protofeminist painter, best known as a portraitist, who was also a card-carrying Communist and a scandalous sensualist. The book follows Neel—often through her own words and those of her family and contemporaries—from her small-town Pennsylvania childhood to art school in Philadelphia to her stay in Havana with her Cuban husband, artist Carlos Enriquez, and her long career in New York City. She had several children (and several abortions). One daughter died and the other was taken back to Cuba to be raised by Carlos’s sisters. Neel and Enriquez separated, and she raised her two sons—by two other men—alone. The sons, Richard and Hartley, survive her; both are surprisingly successful after their Dickensian start, and astonishingly forgiving of her neglect.
She also had numerous lovers, sometimes simultaneously; several were longterm, and the relationships often incendiary. She thrived on a life in turmoil. Nonetheless she painted nonstop through all the drama and through 40 years during which she received little public notice. Undeterred by extreme poverty and infelicitous circumstances, she remained certain of her own genius. And eventually, in the triumphant last two decades of her life, the art world concurred, anointing Neel as one of the great painters of her time and praising her singular, unsparing, psychologically acute portraits of unknowns and celebrities as an invaluable contribution to the American artistic canon.
On the page, Hoban’s Neel is self-aware and intelligent, but also self-absorbed, brutally direct, even nasty, and startlingly vulgar, although the author is evenhanded in her discussion. The book should be considered in tandem with the spare but eloquent 2007 documentary Alice Neel, filmed by her grandson Andrew Neel. There you see another Alice—her charm, wit, and vitality shining through.
In Hoban’s engrossing look at a figurative painter caught in her moment in time but steadily refusing to defect to Abstract Expressionism, the author raises once again always intriguing questions about what must be discarded for the sake of art and what the costs of those choices are.