Woman on the Edge

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

In the past, administrators at the Denver Art Museum have had a bad habit regarding the scheduling of temporary exhibitions. They've lined them up one at a time and then shuttered the rooms -- usually the first-floor Stanton and Hamilton galleries -- in the downtime between shows. Sometimes this state of affairs lasted for months at a stretch.

The atmosphere created by this emptiness right near the museum's entrance was comparable to the way someone looks with their front teeth knocked out. Despite the fact that the other six floors were always filled, open and lit, the darkened galleries downstairs made the place seem closed. Occasionally these periods have coincided with the holiday season -- a time of year when people want to pursue cultural activities, especially with out-of-town family members or friends.

Fortunately, things have changed considerably this season. There will soon be not one, but two major exhibits on display on the first floor through the end of the year, with a third major show on the seventh floor. And the openings and closings have been staggered, so that at least one will still be open when next year's first shows debut. Alice Neel, a retrospective devoted to the late New York artist, has already opened in the Stanton galleries. Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore, which surveys the early-twentieth-century Cos Cob art colony, is set to open next weekend in the adjacent Hamilton galleries. And next month, The Harmsen Collection, highlighting the recently acquired Western art assembled by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, will open upstairs.

"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.

Taken along with the impressive permanent displays and a number of smaller shows, the varied viewing at the DAM is going to be unprecedented in the coming months. This happy situation might even prevail indefinitely, as it looks to be the manifestation of a new strategy -- and a good one.


Denver is the last of a five-city tour for the Neel show, which examines the fifty-year career of this eccentric representational painter who died in 1984. The tour, which was organized by Ann Temkin for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, began at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2000, a hundred years after Neel was born. The belated birthday celebration here in Denver was literally a last-minute addition.

"You know, we are very lucky to have gotten this show in the first place," says Dianne Vanderlip, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the DAM. "The schedule for the exhibition was completed, everything was done. There was a little opening in our calendar, and without even going down and asking [DAM director Lewis Sharp], I called the Philadelphia museum and said, 'Can we get this here? And because of our long relationship with them, they said yes, but that meant that they had to call every single lender. There's a tremendous amount of paperwork that goes into extending the run of a show -- people don't realize that -- but they did everything, and Lewis said if we can pull it off, let's go for it."

Vanderlip had a compelling reason to want the Neel show: She is a significant figure in Neel's professional life, and as responsible as anyone else for the artist's growing fame beginning a generation ago. In fact, it was Vanderlip who organized the first survey of Neel's career back in 1971. That show, which launched Neel as an important artist, was presented at the Moore College of Art and Design Gallery in Philadelphia. Vanderlip was the gallery's founding director, and it was from that job that she came to the DAM's contemporary department in 1978.

Neel worked in obscurity for most of her career, though nearly all of it was spent in New York (with side trips to Cuba and back to Pennsylvania, where she was born). In the 1930s, she was a social realist, but she never received the recognition that others of that ilk did. For the next three decades, she was clearly out of step with the other artists in New York -- in particular, those associated with the various styles of the New York School, from abstract expressionism through pop art to minimalism. In the late '60s and early '70s, however, sociocultural forces, as well as forces in the art world itself, came together to put Neel in a revered place in the aesthetic hierarchy.

In American society, the rise of feminism led many to search for forgotten women artists. The idea was that women had been discriminated against, underappreciated and even barred in the art world. In addition, many advocates of stylistic pluralism began to re-evaluate artists who had worked outside the tenets of the New York School styles. The pluralists were interested in both men and women who'd been ignored because of their individual artistic heterodoxies. By organizing that Neel show at Moore in the early '70s, Vanderlip placed herself at the forefront of these movements.

As visitors enter the Stanton rooms, a discreet arrow indicates that the exhibit begins in the small gallery to the left. The signage is so subtle, though, that I fear many visitors will go through the show backward, which is too bad, because Vanderlip has arranged it in a rough chronology that also lays out Neel's stylistic development.

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.

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.

Neel found her own path through modern art and was oblivious to the trends that swept though the art world during her lifetime. In this way, she reminds me of a number of artists from Colorado history, such as Mary Chenoweth, Roland Detre and Edward Marecak. Unfortunately, these artists never found themselves in the right place at the right time. Maybe someday, their accomplishments will be rediscovered the way Vanderlip found Neel all those years ago.

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