Alice Neel: Paintings
In association with Jeremy Lewison Limited
45 North Venice Boulevard
Venice, California 90291
20 May through 26 June, 2010
Alice Neel (1900-1984) is something of a legend in the cosmology of modern American painting. As an artist, her haunting imagery, subjugation of abstraction to narrative, and gestural, modern brushwork influenced generations of contemporaries and stylistic progeny from Lucien Freud to Chris Ofili, Fairfield Porter to Marlene Dumas. And her personal life itself is the stuff of movies. An unmarried woman with a tragic past who left the bohemian claustrophobia of the West Village for the uncharted territories of Spanish Harlem in 1938, it wasn’t until decades later that she witnessed the embrace of her work by the art establishment. During that time, she never stopped working—and she certainly had her fans—but she was, nevertheless, a woman; and one painting representationally (mainly landscapes and portraits) at a time when masculine, conceptually rigid, European-style abstraction was the dominant paradigm.
In contrast to her landscape’s materiality and physicality, the faces and bodies of her human subjects are often ethereal, even transparent, sporting piercing eyes and heavy physiognomies—it’s always been her portraiture that got the lion’s share of attention. Even as a mammoth survey departed Houston for London, LA Louver’s relatively intimate (by comparison) exhibition of portraiture offered an absolutely satisfying abridged version. Spanning four decades (more or less 1940-80) and including friends, family, artists, and neighbors, the show was a salient crash-course in the evolution of Neel’s style, as well as offering a certain amount of insight into her off-canvas biography during the same period.
Her work at times is almost altruistic—generous and non-judgmental in her physical and psychological depictions—but insightful as a therapist’s notebook. Her 1967 painting, for example, of not-yet-iconic New York artist Red Grooms and his wife Mimi Gross, appears to show a romance on the verge of pulling apart. Mimi’s face is see-through, her gaze affixed “off-camera,” while Red unevenly but intently stares at the artist/viewer, leaning forward, clasping Mimi’s hand like a leash. It’s unsettling, and not least because this composition has more negative space and fewer cool colors, freely exchanging styles of representation among chairs, persons, and objects. Her subjects are always one with their surroundings; in this case, that totality is disintegrating.
By contrast, her 1968 picture of Richard Gibbs is seething with life, color, tamed and fetid nature, casual sensuality, and warm, tactile sunlight. Her particular way of rendering anatomy and form remains unmistakable—that painterly figuration with the deliberateness of stained glass and the headlong urgency of sketchbook exercises. Her empathetic ability to use every tool of painting in order to suffuse the entire canvas with her sitter’s imprint as well as likeness—sometimes through restraint and ambiguity, sometimes with dense passages of telling, expressive detail—marks her as an adventurous, vibrant humanist every bit as does her revolutionary life story.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
view all articles from this author