12 October 2011
Alice Neel paintings are like car wrecks. You don't want to look at the mayhem, but your eyes are inexorably drawn to it. I have always loved her work, but always feel a bit uncomfortable when I look at the paintings. Perhaps that is Neel's greatest gift.
This weekend I read Phoebe Hoban's new biography of the artist, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty.
I used to read a lot of fiction, but lately I have found that there is nothing better than real life. It would be hard to "make-up" Alice Neel. In fact, she seems almost made-up, like the character a first time novelist might try to write. The novel would be about a woman artist in the 2oth century and the character might be...
born a few weeks into the 20th century. She would eschew the domestic confines of her family and become an artist. She would be a portrait painter in the age of abstraction. She would marry a fellow artist. They would have a daughter who dies and a second spirited away to her father's native Cuba. She would have a nervous breakdown and slew of lovers. She would have hundreds of paintings destroyed by a jealous lover. She would paint for the WPA. She would be both a communist and a feminist. She would have a son by a nightclub singer and one by a communist intellectual, but she would raise them alone. She would appeared in the beat film, Pull My Daisy. She would paint Andy Warhol and children from the street. After painting for nearly 7 decades, she would get some recognition and then die. She would be a great fictional character...
except she was real. Hoban biography might as well be a biography of the last century. In fact, Neel said if she ever wrote an autobiography it would be entitled, "I am the century."
And indeed, she was.