Alice Neel, like many women artists of her time, was under-appreciated when she was alive. During the 1930s, Neel was employed by the Works Project Administration and painted urban landscapes. Between then and the ’60s, the art world nearly ignored her. During the ’60s, though, during which time she moved from Spanish Harlem to the Upper West Side, a few critics began paying attention, most notably Hubert Crehan, a writer and painter known for defending women artists. Today, Neel’s work is widely admired, and frequently exhibited. Her gaunt, expressionistic portraits of artists, writers, and musicians have been reconsidered as telling works about the anxieties of her time. And while she is better known for paintings, she also produced a number of drawings and watercolors, which are now the subject of a show at David Zwirner. In honor of the show, titled “Drawings and Watercolors 1927–1982,” we turn back to Crehan’s essay about Neel’s work, written in 1962. Crehan, who had previously curated a show of Neel’s work, wrote that Neel was a “master of her technique.” Noting her portraits’ honesty, Crehan made his case for why modern painting was still very much alive through Neel’s work. His essay, titled “Introducing the Portraits of Alice Neel,” is reproduced in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“Introducing the Portraits of Alice Neel”
By Hubert Crehan
For thirty years, her look at the Human Comedy of Beats and Squares, the Saints and the Sinners, has been filled with unwavering integrity
Anyone who would make a dogmatic claim that modern portrait painting is dead is in danger of having to seal his lips on this subject after seeing the paintings of Alice Neel.
There are revelations to be made in painting people today, and she makes them. There are risks to be taken in doing portraits, and she takes them.
Alice Neel with a pure incongruousness has created an asylum of saints and sinners, a rogue’s gallery that makes a place for the Beatific and the Beat. Her world is the demi-monde: Village Bohemia, Spanish Harlem (where she has lived for twenty years), the world of artists and poets, the world of homeless radicals, displaced and deranged persons, like a Scandinavian baron and a dark-skinned motherless child.
If the work of Alice Neel is not an expression of the mightiest spiritual aspiration, this is because, unlike lesser talents, she has made a pact with the limitations of her experience, which is one of the signs of a controlled and intelligent creativity. If her work has developed intuitively rather than by theory, this fault (if it be one) has preserved the freshness of her eye and energies which are put directly at the service of her painting.
She paints portraits that come alive and that have style and meaning. She is a master of a technique which can reach a high and convincing level of expressiveness. She is a painter whose work has individual character. There is a place for this work. It is an achievement of portraiture in our time and I have no doubt that it will come to be recognized for its rightful value.
Alice Neel might have had a successful career as a commercial portraitist were it not for the facts that she has the honesty of a craftsman, a rebel’s unwillingness to compromise or ingratiate and a preternatural incompetence in business. What she does have plenty of is talent, and this she has used to paint portraits as works of art during a time when this genre is widely suspected of not being art at all.
Whatever some opinions may be, portraiture is a universal manifestation of painting and in the best of it at all times we can discern the eternal features of art.
In her portraits Alice Neel is as much preoccupied with the psychological nuances of the human condition as they are made visible in the characteristic gestures and grimaces as she is in formal arrangements. It is the truthfulness and the shock of recognition of these particulars in her paintings that give them larger meaning.
If tension has become one of the things that modern art is about, she will show it to you where it is especially interesting and becoming: on the face in the twisted lips, in the way a hand rests in a lap, the rigidity of a neck, the posture of crossed legs.
The innovations in painting styles in the last twenty-five years are said to be a new form of the expression of tension. It is easily forgotten that innovators themselves say that they were reluctant to depart from natural figurative imagery. In confrontation with the human form as a subject, they were constrained to withdraw from it by some circumambient inhibition. The full look in the face at human tension perhaps led them into those realms where that tension could be expressed abstractly. However, these artists whose formal innovations led them away from the human figure are most insistent that the forms of their art are still an expressions of the human condition, and they are least willing to discount the validity today of that painting of the human form which is done with passion and truthfulness.
The human figure has remained a problematical subject in painting for some time; it is either too large and complex or too slight a subject, or it has refused to be a subject—holding up its index finger and saying, “Noli me tangere.”
Apparently Alice Neel has never been told by some spectre of the human form to leave it alone. Her singular gifts have a need for their exact expression in the direct, immediate confrontation with a live model. “Being born,” she says, “I looked around and the world and its people were terrified and fascinated me. I was attracted by the morbid and excessive and everything connected with death had a dark power over me. I was early taken to Sunday school where the tale of Christ nailed to the Cross would send me into violent weeping and I’d have to be taken home. Also I remember a film they showed at the church of the horrors of delirium tremens that unnerved me and prevented my sleeping for many nights.
“I decided to paint a human comedy—such as Balzac had done in literature. In the thirties I painted the ‘Beat’ of those days—Joe Gould, Sam Putnam, Kenneth Fearing, etc. I painted the neurotic, the mad and the miserable. Also I painted the others, including some ‘Squares.’ Like Chichikov I am a collector of Souls. Now some of my subjects are beginning to die and they have an historic nostalgia; everyone seems better and more important when they are dead.”
Alice Neel has painted most of her subjects with their clothes on. I suppose that she might have preferred to paint them as she did the portrait of Joe Gould (in 1933), undressed, the Number 1 portrait in her rogue’s gallery. Joe Gould, arch-bohemian of the ’30s, poet, author of an interminable “Oral History,” and court jester for the old Village artistic and intellectual world, appears seated in the nude, hands on his knees fingering a black cigarette holder. A sweet smile of welcome is directed toward his beholders as they gape at the tier of three separate genital systems he is regaled with. On either side of the bald-headed Gould are two headless versions of him, placed so that attention is cast on their pubic regions; on the left hangs an uncircumcised member and on the right a circumcised one, both ultraviolet in color and at ease like two flags on a windless day.
It is a riotous image of the Village character, Joe Gould, who made himself into the exhibitionistic clown that society demanded.
The composition of the picture resembles that of much sacred art, for Joe Gould is a cockeyed, battered fertility symbol. Even though seated one can see he is also crucified, flanked by two thieves of his alter egos. As a social jester, he represents the pricks of conscience of those who kept him as a performing ape.
Not all of Alice Neel’s portraits are executed with the sardonic razz-ma-tazz that the Joe Gould one has. Mostly she paints them straight, or she underplays her satire.
It was not until 1961 that Alice Neel made an comparably incisive comment on the New York art scene: the double-portrait of Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof. This brilliant sketch is a tour-de-force. She painted it from memory immediately after attending an opening at the Wise Galler where she saw the couple step out of the elevator.
Who else is in the gallery?
A simple, unsentimental portrait of her dead father, lying in final repose in his casket, David Rosenberg, just before he died, already in the clutch of his death, his eyes cavernous, his flesh tormented and withered by malignancy.
Max White, an arthritic whose enlarged shiny knuckles on the left hand are like miniatures of his large hairless ivory dome against the clerical black of his suit.
Two versions of Frank O’Hara, a garland of lavender not quite wreathing his head, the mouth of the poet puckered, his eyes in a ferret squint.
Two versions of Randall: Randall Himself, as solid and clean as a squarehead seaman; the other, Randall (in Extremis), his nerves snarled and demented.
Christie White, an echo of the days of Scott Fitzgerald, her skirt above her knees and looking on the world with the eyes of a doe.
Kenneth Fearing, the poet, who died last year, painted in the ’30s on the night that his first child was born. It is of another era; Third Avenue El in the background; everything in a blue haze.
The nude Lida, her face livid and choked with menacing emotions above the deep chasm of her Amazonian breasts.
Alvin Simon, small young Negro, his eyes shining in meek good will for he knows he will inherit the earth.
Miles Kreuger, in half profile, an elegant impresario of actors and mimes.
The Baron’s Aunt, who just came along when the most elegant Baron was to sit himself and stayed to sit himself.
Sam Putnam, scholar, writer, translator of Pirandello, Rabelais from the Greek, from the Latin, who sold out and saw his doom in the bottom of a shot glass.
Bobby, on pot, so far out he might never come back.
Most of Alice Neel’s paintings have never been exhibited. Her first show during World War II just about the time that the schism between figurative and abstract styles was to reach its climax and alter the order of the art world. In the period that followed, a prodigious blind spot usually forms whenever attention is directed to her work. When it has been show it has been praised in reviews. The critics have asked for more. Lawrence Campbell in ARTnews wrote about a group show she was in last year that “Miss Neel made the strongest impression. She has been painting for years but for some unknown reason is rarely seen in exhibitions… Her paintings cast a spell.”
The recent portraits of Miss Neel show some changes over earlier work. A lot of them are larger, approaching life size. Her palette has changed; now it is brighter and more colorful. She keeps painting and making headway.
She studied at the Philadelphia School of Design (now the Moore Institute). “The Academy in those days taught Impressionism, and those yellow lights and blue shadows and happy people never seemed like the world that I saw and that is why I did not go to the Academy.”
“When I go to a show today of modern art I feel that my world has been swept away. And yet I do not think it can be so that the human creature will be forever Verboten. In fact it is changing right now…
“I feel I could go further than I do—after all, there is a lot of unexplored underbrush in my soul—but there is always the other person—the world—which if one is sensitive exerts some pressure. People are still here and, for me, not monoliths but people with special psychologies all jumbled together and struggling…”