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.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Outsider Art Ins and Outs

By Winfred Rembert, dye on carved and tooled leather

"If you think you are an Outsider Artist, you aren't," said Robert Bullock at the Pop-Up Outsider Art Show in the Philly area a couple weeks ago.  He should know.  He is Director of The Coalition Ingenu Self-taught Artists' Collective, which arranged the pop-up for Outsiders Art & Collectibles, a gallery from Durham, North Carolina.

The gallery's owner, Pam Gutlon, told a story about a supposed Outsider artist who turned out to be a fake.  Someone had made up a persona of a down-and-out black man, whose work had gained a certain notoriety, cachet, and sales.  Outsider art is  getting more and more art world recognition, even at the 2013 Venice Biennale, with prices to match.  It's unknown who made up the fake personna.  It could have been a starving art school student who needed the cash and was good at imitating a certain style.  "I don't carry his work anymore" she said. 

Now the current New Yorker magazine has an article about Bill Arnett (a white man), who has created the world's most comprehensive collection of art made by untrained black Southerners in his Souls Grown Deep Foundation.   "...the genre of art he collected had cycled through names:  folk, self-taught, visionary, outsider, and vernacular, the term Arnett (now) uses."  The article raises many questions about the relationship of the artists to the art world and the people who create and facilitate that interface.  Are they exploitive if they provide materials or stipends?  What about being a promoter, patron, curator, and dealer all at the same time?  Is the artist being manipulated?  The article ends with innuendo that the recent visit of curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new division of modern and contemporary art to Arnett's Souls Grown Deep Foundation may lead to acquiring part of the collection.

One reality not addressed in The New Yorker article is that the generation of vernacular artists who were oblivious to the wider art world when they were discovered is dying out.  Younger self-taught outsider artists, no matter how geographically isolated, still are internet savy.  Even if they have little education, they are not naive.  They have cell phones.  The lines have blurred.

by Hawkins Bolden,  a blind artist from Tennessee, 1914 - 2005
Smithsonian American Art Museum