Woman on the Edge

The Alice Neel retrospective at the DAM is really something else.

This first section, subtitled, "Greenwich Village," includes many of Neel's oldest paintings. The first is one of the most difficult to look at and may explain why the show starts around the corner from the entrance instead of in front of it -- though Vanderlip denies that this was the case. The painting, "Joe Gould," an oil on canvas from 1933, is a portrait of a friend of Neel's, a bohemian writer whom she sometimes helped support. She has depicted him nude and with three penises. The wild-eyed Gould is seen sitting on a stool, and standing on either side of him are two naked men.

As unconventional as "Joe Gould" is, the handling of his face and the way he stares out at the viewer would become a Neel signature in her later work.

The same year that Neel painted "Joe Gould," 1933, she enrolled in the New Deal relief programs, the Public Works of Art Project; later, she joined the Works Progress Administration. She remained with the WPA until 1943. The paintings and watercolors in the next gallery continue to examine Neel's work from this time period, but most are examples of social realism as opposed to the idiosyncratic approaches in the first section. Social realism is sometimes called "the WPA style," as it reflects the predominance of representational art in the federal program. A number of the paintings here will remind viewers of other artists whose fame was established in the 1930s. For example, "Dead Father," an oil on canvas from 1946, shows a definite affinity with the work of Ben Shaun, while "Ninth Avenue El" recalls the work of Edward Hopper.

"Dianne Vanderlip," by Alice Neel, oil on canvas.
"Dianne Vanderlip," by Alice Neel, oil on canvas.
"Self-Portrait," oil on canvas.
"Self-Portrait," oil on canvas.

Neel's early work, then, was perhaps not as accomplished as that of her contemporaries, but it was at least connected to the same stylistic concerns. In the next section, titled "East Harlem," made up of work from the post-war period, Neel veers way outside the stylistic concerns in the air at the time -- surrealism and abstract expressionism -- and her work seems more closely akin to post-war illustration than it does to post-war painting. This is easily seen in a piece like "Two Girls, Spanish Harlem," from 1959, which looks like a magazine cover.

At this point, there's a break in the show -- which makes sense, since the second half of Neel's career is the most significant. Vanderlip uses this break to lay out Neel's juicy biography in didactic panels supplemented by reprints of historic photos. Neel had a lifelong interest in radical politics, and she had a slew of kids who were the product of numerous romantic liaisons, a couple of them disastrous. Her first husband, artist Carlos Enriquez, left her and took their daughter with him to Cuba, leading Neel to attempt suicide. A few years later, Kenneth Doolittle, a sailor with whom Neel was living, destroyed some 300 of her works in a fit of rage. (These kinds of stories surely increased her allure among feminists.) Shortly before her death, Neel appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

The final part of the exhibit contains the classic Neels that many will be familiar with. These are mostly portraits in which the subjects are placed in awkward, twisting poses. Neel's tortured sense of perspective captures two-dimensionality rather than a 3-D quality.

This later period -- the 1960s through the 1980s -- is also when luminaries from the art world discovered and sought Neel out in order to have her paint their portraits. These include two of poet and curator Frank O'Hara, one of art historian Meyer Schapiro, another of conceptual artist Robert Smithson. Pop artist extraordinaire Andy Warhol is the subject of a remarkable portrait in which Neel exposes his gunshot wound and, with a single black line, the fact that he's wearing a toupee. There's a haunting double portrait of the Soyer twins, Raphael and Moses, who were social-realist friends from the Village in the 1930s. Vanderlip points out an interesting feature of the portrait of Henry Geldzahler, a curator and art historian. "He looks like he can't wait to get out of there," says Vanderlip, and she's right. But I guess that's to be expected considering that Geldzahler coined the term "New York School," a member of which Neel decidedly was not.

Another portrait depicts a figure in the art world from a little closer to home: "Dianne Vanderlip" is an oil on canvas from 1973. This portrait was not part of the traveling show but was lent by Vanderlip's daughter, who owns it. Given Vanderlip's significance to the DAM and her significance to Neel's career, it would be great if this painting eventually wound up in the museum's permanent collection.

Adjacent to the Vanderlip portrait is "Self Portrait," an oil on canvas from 1980 that's one of the most important and utterly characteristic Neel paintings in the exhibit.

Neel's later work became widely influential with regard to the neo-expressionism of the 1980s. And work by feminist artists of the last thirty years has also been heavily influenced by her example -- though few successfully. But one of the most surprising things about Neel, as revealed by this show, is the quiet, insistent and surprising debt that her work owes to modern master Henri Matisse. In her preference for the seated figure, in her alteration of perspective, in her palette and in the way she uses fabric as the focus of visual attention, it's easy to see his influence.

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