Searching for Myself in Alice Neel's Radical Portraits
February 26, 2019
In December of 1978, a minor but newsworthy fracas erupted between the painter Alice Neel and the sculptor Pat Ladew, a Standard Oil heiress who, three decades earlier, had commissioned Neel to paint her portrait. Now, Ladew was dismayed to see that same portrait on the cover of an auction catalog that arrived by mail. In the painting, for which she had posed, at 19, wearing only a pair of demure black ballet flats, she appears pouty and languorous, propped up on one elbow, knees akimbo, a Siamese cat nestled into her hip mere inches from her pubic hair. (Likely it was Neel’s cat: At one point she kept nine of them in her Harlem apartment.)
This portrait had history. When the artist first sold it to her subject for a few hundred dollars, Ladew sent it back, demanding Neel add a pair of panties. She acquiesced but Ladew rejected the doctored version too. The panties came off. Neel held onto the canvas. Decades later, in her late 70s and in the midst of a career renaissance, she donated it to a benefit for a group opposed to nuclear proliferation. It’s hard not to read into the way she chose to title the painting: with Ladew’s full name.
Her subject threatened to sue, calling the portrait a “gynecological goodie,” and fretting that her Palm Beach grandmother might see the catalog and disinherit her. Neel’s retort was cutting, and slightly absurd. “Most civilized people,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “love nudes of themselves.”
Months later People magazine reached back out to a slightly more sanguine Ladew. “I respect Alice,” she granted. “But her stuff is too intimate to live with.”
The Ladew story is an extreme example, but it gets at the tension at the heart of Neel’s work: Who, in this day and age, is a portrait for? To vastly oversimplify, historically it was straightforward enough. The portraitist was a hired gun: I commission you, you flatter me, the result goes on my wall to show how important I am. Then came photography, then abstraction, then a new world order. For many of the decades Neel was working, her favored form was seen as pointless or downright taboo, a staid, bourgeois relic with no practical purpose and little currency in the modern art world. Even when Pop Art brought figuration back into the fold—and Neel’s star rose as a sort of dowager chronicler of ’60s and ’70s bohemia, with a late-in-life, long overdue retrospective at the Whitney—the portrait retained its musty why-bother funk, so much so that her estate still balks at applying the term to her work.
But Neel made portraiture into something else entirely. Most of her paintings were not commissions: She was brazen about approaching prospective models whose expressions, clothing, or way of carrying themselves caught her eye. “She’d always say, “I have to paint you,’ not, ‘Do you mind?’” remembers her daughter-in-law, Ginny Neel. That devotion to the form, even at its least fashionable, means Neel, who grew up middle class and bored in small-town Pennsylvania, subsisted for much of her adult life on welfare checks. It means she never had a studio space in New York, making her paintings at home (first in a railroad flat in Spanish Harlem, where she moved from the Village in 1938, then in an Upper West Side apartment). These were intimate spaces that may, in fact, have helped incubate her very intimate portraits.
There were other factors too. She had a thing for unreliable men, and tired of the ones she could depend on. Born in 1900—two decades ahead of women’s suffrage—she made her way in the deeply misogynistic mid-century American art world (for a sense of both the chauvinism, and the distaste for portraiture: When Neel asked Met curator Henry Geldzahler, who sat for her in 1967, to include her work in a survey show of New York painters, he scoffed and said, “Oh, so you want to be a professional?”). She feared parting with her paintings—“I had a block . . . against publicity . . . against the outside world. There’s something of the pack rat about me”—and was perversely good at undermining her own market. She also had had an aversion to the kind of painterly white lies that might have made her work more commercially viable. “I never wanted to work for hire,” she said, “because I don’t want to do what will please a subject.”
The fact is, Neel did not have to depict a person naked to make him or her feel very, very exposed. The artist’s portraits drift in and out of realism—eerie and lifelike here; sketchy, loose, and cartoonish there—but they offer a shocking jolt of reality, an uneasy sense of recognition that’s hard to shake. (The art critic Peter Schjeldahl called them “something that happens to you.”) In an oft-repeated quote, a Newsweek critic declared Neel in 1966 “like an old pagan priestess somehow overlooked in the triumph of a new religion”—abstraction. Her “only harm,” he went on, “lies in her compulsion to tell the truth.”
That truth can hurt. An Alice Neel painting reflects the way people actually look: the tension that we hold in our mouths, hands and eyes; the stress we can’t quite unstitch from our faces without the help of a mirror; the awkwardness of existing within a body. (The art historian Linda Nochlin, whom Alice painted in 1973, called her work “portraits of a universal existential anxiety” that also illustrate “the relative painfulness of sitting for a portrait.”) It’s easy enough to compose one’s expression or posture for the time it takes to snap a photograph; it’s harder to do so over the course of multiple multi-hour interactive sittings. To be anachronistic, Neel’s portraits are the best rejoinder to selfie culture that I can think of.
Being painted by the artist, I imagine, may have felt like going to a fortune teller: You only think you want to know what she sees. Louise Bourgeois, Neel’s contemporary, refused to sit for her. When Neel painted Whitney director John I. H. Baur, he, like Ladew, declined to purchase the outcome. So did art-world power couple John Gruen and Jane Wilson. “If we did buy it,” Gruen remarked, “we wouldn’t have known where to put it.” In 1960, when she painted the poet Frank O’Hara, then a curator at MoMA with considerable sway over her career, Neel neatly exposed the fine line between beauty and beastliness: She completed two portraits, the first an achingly lovely depiction of O’Hara’s unconventional profile. In the second, he faces forward, snarling, wild-eyed, his forehead dotted with liver spots.
“My God, those freckles,” he exclaimed when he saw it. Just as telling: He never championed Neel’s work, or included it in a show.
This week Pat Ladew goes on view at David Zwirner’s 19th Street gallery in Manhattan, alongside 30 or so of Alice Neel’s more radical paintings and drawings, most of them nudes. The show, organized by Neel’s daughter-in-law Ginny, with help from Zwirner’s Bellatrix Hubert, is meant to be something of a corrective for audiences more familiar with the artist’s portraits of glittery ’70s art and music scenesters, and the outrageous court jester public persona she cultivated in her waning years. (Zwirner’s last Neel outing, the 2017 exhibition “Uptown,” did something similar with a different body of work.). The new show is called “Freedom,” derived in part from a quote: “When you’re an artist you’re searching for freedom,” Neel said. “You never find it, ’cause there ain’t any freedom. But at least you search for it. In fact, art could be called the search.”
Neel had a similarly freewheeling philosophy when it came to her personal affairs. She had four children by three different men, only one of whom she married, and kept a bench of sometimes overlapping paramours. “Alice lived the liberation and therefore could paint what she painted,” says Ginny. “Freedom” is a show, in part, about taking pleasure in one’s sexuality. The best example appears in the catalog, but not in the gallery: Joie de Vivre (1935) is a prelapsarian fantasia in which Neel portrays herself as a frolicking pig, getting cheerfully dildoed by a shoe that her naked human lover has just flung from his foot. Another good example (this one will be at Zwirner): Neel’s 1933 rendering of the famed Greenwich Village eccentric Joe Gould, really a portrait—in quintuplicate!—of his uncircumcised penis. Jerry Saltz once wrote of the painting’s phallic abundance, “These are vivacious pricks, painted by someone who looked at cocks and was pleased and amused by them.”
It’s also a show about the consequences of sex, which are borne, Neel reminds us, largely by women. In Isabetta (1934), Neel painted her estranged daughter at 5 years old, naked and defiant, her puffy pudendum taking center stage (gallerists at the time refused to show the work, deeming it, in the current parlance, problematic). More disturbing to the modern eye are the grim, allegorical paintings Neel made about motherhood in the late ’20s and ’30s, a decade during which she endured a miscarriage; the death of her first daughter, Santillana, from diphtheria; the loss of Isabetta, whose father sent her at 17 months old to live with relatives in his native Cuba; the destruction of much of her early work by a jealous, drug-addled boyfriend; and a nervous breakdown, accompanied by multiple suicide attempts (she spent much of 1930 and 1931 in asylums). In Well Baby Clinic (1928), Neel construes a maternity ward as a sort of frenetic zoo, with writhing infants—one of whom she compared to a bit of hamburger—as the main attraction. In Degenerate Madonna (1930), a mother, her breasts extruded into witchy teats, holds a rigid, ghostly babe, leaving us to wonder about the moral of the story.
In her brilliant catalog essay, the curator Helen Molesworth observes about the show: “These are pictures of what it looks like to be curious about people when they are naked.” That’s never more true than in Neel’s remarkable paintings from the ’60s and ’70s of nude expectant mothers, including two of her son Richard’s first wife, Nancy. They are the exhibition’s high point—their drawn, pensive faces, ungainly bellies, and angry nipples controverting any romantic notions of pregnancy glow. They gaze at Neel warily, as if to say, “You better not turn me into some kind of fucking fertility goddess.” You can practically smell the hormones in the room.
Alice Neel died of colon cancer in 1984 and is buried in a meadow on the farm in Stowe, Vermont, where her younger son, Hartley, and his wife, Ginny, live. Her family interred her, at her own request, in the cheapest coffin available at the upper Manhattan funeral home where her body was taken. When I visit her gravesite one day in early January, the ground is covered in several feet of snow. The only sign that marks this as anything but a clearing in the woods is a metal sculpture of a horse, rearing or dancing on the far side of the field.
The Neels own 1,700 acres of this corner of Vermont, and Ginny keeps farm animals: horses, ponies, chickens, a rescue dog who lives in the barn, a flock of sheep, and a couple of llamas to herd and protect them while grazing. It doesn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that, in their marriage, Ginny is the llama and Hartley is the sheep. He’s a radiologist. His brother, Richard, was, at one point a corporate lawyer and a self-professed Nixonian Republican (their mother was a sort of casual communist, though, says Ginny, “Dogma was not her thing”). The strange wrinkle in Alice Neel’s otherwise bohemian biography is that she managed to give the two children she raised to adulthood the best educations available: scholarships to an Upper East Side prep school and a New England boarding school and Ivy League degrees. The boys became, for lack of a better word, squares. Or so I think until I meet Hartley, who wears a beret and a gold cuff inscribed with the Schrödinger equation and is prone to outlandish non sequiturs and what he calls “flights of idea.” He is eccentric enough that one night over dinner, he gifts me, with great formality, a Ziploc baggie full of buttons printed with Neel family photographs. It occurs to me that a radiologist does something not unlike a portrait artist. He looks inside people, he interprets images, he tries to understand.
Schrödinger’s theorem described the wave function of quantum-mechanical systems. His work begot that of Heisenberg, whose famous uncertainty principle can be abstracted to say something about the nature of making a portrait (and I suppose of reporting an article too): You can’t know both the momentum and precise location of an object at once; you can’t see something without affecting the thing you’re looking at. Neel’s portraits are the result of her perspicacious eye, but also of some unknowable alchemy created in the room where they were made, what the New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als, who curated Zwirner’s last Neel show, called “a pouring in of energy from both sides.”