Alice Neel: Flirting Past the Edge

Something’s happened that’s never happened before in the history of me being me: I chose not to buy a book. 

The catalog in question was by The Met for a retrospective of the New York painter Alice Neel. It was shrink-wrapped in the standard-issue beauty of a cream-paged art book from a major institution and selling for 50 bucks a pop (my membership would shave 10% from the total, so basically New York City sales tax. Wunderbar).  

I flipped through an open copy on a plastic stand and soon realized that the reproductions couldn’t match the vitality of the portraits. 

There’s a textured skin and psyche in Neel’s work that requires an in-person meeting. The show’s title comes from one of her guiding principles — ”People Come First” — and that raw sensitivity to presence can’t be easily sublimated into photography. Her realizations of color are as layered, surprising, and delightful as Matisse; people live in these portraits, the paint as integral to their self-definition as our seven layers of skin. The memories and feelings I gained in viewing these works — that’s what’s real and what I have to rely on in my mind. That substance cannot be photographed, no matter how finely printed (though the iPhone Max 11 Pro comes close?)

Check out everyone on display here

This here-and-now, sui generis essence hit me hardest with the Robert Smithson portrait. Neel completed it in 1962, when Smithson was 24. There’s an intensity throughout the portrait as light-layers accumulate to concretize a form or, in their abysmal absence, point to something richer and more mysterious (I’m looking mostly at the “hole” at the center of his blazer jacket). The paint so lovingly lain down in alternatives of thick impasto and ethereal pigment. A soil brown-grayness is far from ugly because of the severity of his thought-expression, jawline, and elongated fingers.

I did not know that Smithson had pockmarks since a teenager; Neel renders that reality with hard dignity: you know the redness carries a vulnerability, but Neel views this more as a source of tender strength.

Then look how Neel outlines. Everyone receives a fairly thick but generous membrane, as if to guard the individual’s gift and psyche. It’s not a rigid or commercial border like Lichtenstein. It’s a border the individual defines. Neel is sensitive to it and lets people work through her to realize a new self-border: at times a light blue (“Elizabeth in Red Hat”); grey or black for one male figure then a deeper blue for a female figure (“Pregnant Julie and Algis”) or her portrait of Mercedes Arroyo, who’s figured like another famous woman:

Whether in watercolor or oil or graphite, sharp lines embody the individual. The lines work to protect, not to capture or dictate. The fluid and forceful lines for the Adrienne Rich sketch (1973) attest to Rich’s brilliant empathy and intellect. Neel wants to bring out (rather than stamp or re-determine) what is already magnificently there.

Neel flirts with (yet never accepts) borders. Her famous portrait of Andy Warhol has him at the edge of a couch, a very subtle way to hint vulnerability within a larger and less forgiving space; Julie and Algis push against the painting’s edge, illuminating a marital tension. “Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian,” a stunning portrait of gay love made by a 78-year-old painter in the late 70s, has one hand of the Fluxus artist – Hendricks – pleasantly placed into the lower-left edge. The dual portrait should end here, but one senses continuity; there’s no indisputable vanishing point with Neel (maybe another reason why her work evades the demanding knowingness of photography). People seem continual rather than cut off, which is the traditional give-and-take prerogative of capitalistic portraiture (the idiom “paying an arm and a leg” comes from the higher price it once was to have one’s limbs painted in a portrait). Neel borders individuals in thick outline, but none of her pieces have a strong border around the frame itself. The subjects determine their own frame. These portraits are free agents. 

Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian” (1978)

There’s so much more to learn about Alice Neel, starting with her appearance on Johnny Carson:

Let’s be real: even if the reproductions can’t compare to the charge of being around a Neel portrait, I’m still going to buy the book.

Alice Neel: People Come First 

March 22 – August 1, 2021

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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