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Alice Neel: Up Close and Personal

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Born at the dawn of the 20th-century, artist and feminist icon Alice Neel was a woman ahead of her time -- a distinction for which she paid dearly throughout much of her life. She lost her first child to diphtheria, her second was taken from her by her husband to be raised by his family in Cuba. She suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide and was hospitalized for nearly a year. A series of bad relationships followed. One boyfriend was a drug addict who destroyed about 60 of her early paintings. She had two more children by two different men, one of whom was physically abusive to her and their son. She isolated herself from the artistic community of Greenwich Village and moved to Spanish Harlem searching for "the truth." She was a female figurative painter in a world that was dominated by male Abstract Expressionists.

Yet none of that stopped her from painting the psychologically charged portraits of her friends, family and neighbors for which she finally became recognized.

Grandson Andrew Neel's 2008 documentary, Alice Neel, takes a very personal look at Neel's struggles as a female artist and single mother who led an unashamedly bohemian life, sacrificing much along the way for her art:

It's a privilege, you know, to paint and it takes up a lot of time and it means there's a lot of things you don't do. But still, with me, painting was more than a profession, it was also an obsession. I had to paint.

Interviews with family members, friends, art historians, artists, and Neel herself, are woven together with still images of her life and work, making for a compelling and very personal narrative about the life of this amazing woman.

Neel's two sons, Richard and Hartley provide some of the most poignant insight into their mother's life. Both sons cherished their mother but strove as adults for lives that were as dependable and stable, as their childhood was not. Richard became a lawyer and a right-wing conservative, Hartley a doctor.

Richard, who was abused by his father, describes what it was like to be raised in this non-traditional household:

I don't like bohemian culture, frankly. I think that a lot of innocent people are hurt by it. I consider that I was hurt by it. And the people who engage in it really don't care about or don't feel responsible for those that are around them or those who depend on them. If people are in that position, you don't put them at risk by your behavior.

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Alice Neel, Antonia and Carmen Evarnacion, 1959, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5 cm
© The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York


His brother, Hartley, says of his mother:

If she had been satisfied with the paragon of what women were supposed to be in her era, she would have accomplished nothing!

He goes on to say:

Out of the chaos of the emotional situation, Alice somehow teased out some higher reality for herself... and I don't know how to say it exactly, but she got energy from the emotional stress and intellectual jousting that went on in these interactions.

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Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978, Oil on canvas, 57 3/4 x 38 inches, 146.7 x 96.5 cm
© The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York


Ultimately, it was the feminist movement in the 1970s that brought Alice Neel's work and struggles to forefront of the art world. In 1970, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of feminist activist Kate Millet that appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In 1974, her work was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. In 1979, Neel was presented with the National Women's Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement by President Jimmy Carter.

Looking back on her work, Neel says:

I liked it first to be art, so actually dividing up the canvas is one of the most exciting things for me. And then I like it not only to look like the person but to have their inner character as well. And then I like it to express the zeitgeist. See, I don't like something from the '60s to look like something in the '70s. And they don't. It's amazing. Every decade changes like that. Lucky for me, as old as I am, I can still change. Because I've known people, they get stuck back in the '30s or '40s and never get out of it and just keep on doing the same thing over again.

Neel died in 1984 at the age of 84 and at the height of her recognition. Andrew Neel ends this touching film about his grandmother with these inspiring words from her:

... man is the measure of all things. That's what I've always thought. And in fact, one man said, 'you can do anything you will to do.' He didn't just mean art, he meant anything in the world. And I love that too because that means if you're sufficiently tenacious and interested, you can accomplish what you want to accomplish in this world.

Cross-posted from Jane Chafin's Offramp Gallery Blog