Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Alice Neel: a messy life & truthful art
I just watched the documentary Alice Neel, directed by her grandson Andrew Neel. It was a stunning feast for the eyes: her portraits over the decades, archival footage of her while painting (she was a lefty), and interviews at various stages of her life. Made after her death, it also included painfully honest interviews with her two sons who didn't pull any punches about how her struggles as an artist, a woman, and a single parent had negatively impacted them as children. At the same time they conveyed deep loyalty and love for their mother. I always loved Alice Neel's painting, and knew she had struggled, but at times this video was more information than I wanted: an early suicide attempt and hospitalization, poverty, a son she was unable to protect from abuse by his step-father, abandonment of a daughter to her father's wealthy family when unable to care for her, who did suicide as an adult. Alice Neel led a chaotic life on the fringes, in which the sacrifices for art often seemed questionable. Her uncanny perception of the raw psychological truth of people evident in her portraiture seemed in contrast to how her own behavior impacted other people's lives.
Her fortunes shifted late in life with her exhibit at the Whitney, apparently promoted by her son Hartley, and she hit it big.
For me the pivotal question was raised by her daughter-in-law, who noted in the video that Alice had struggled and persevered and finally succeeded, therefore (so the story goes) it was all worth it. She pointed out that it would have been entirely possible to have died never having gotten the recognition. "Would that have meant then that it wasn't worth it?" Of how many artists could it be said that despite persistence they never got the recognition? I think we know what the artists would say as to whether it was worth it or not...
Peter Schjeldahl wrote an article about Alice Neel in the May 25, 2009 New Yorker magazine. I copied down this quote from it and have kept it with me:
"A psychoanalyst once asked Alice Neel why it was so important to be so honest in art. Her answer:"It's not so important, it's just a privilege." "
This is why we love Alice Neel, despite all.