Donald Kuspit on Elated Abstraction: Irene Neal’s Paintings

Traveler, 22 x 28


By DONALD KUSPIT, April 2021

Looking at Irene Neal’s paintings, all inspired by nature, homages to nature in all its complex glory, as Birth of Spring # 1, 2020 and Rhythms of Autumn #4, 2017 make clear—nature in a process of change, at once spontaneous and perpetual, nature perceived as a “resurrection, the Easter of the eyes,” nature experienced in “sincere communion,” as the Brothers Goncourt noted that it began to be with the Barbizon School(1)—one can’t help admire their colors, a kind of wake up call to the senses, to the sense of touch as well as sight, for they are applied to the white paper with a painterly touch at once deft and forceful—spontaneously decisive, one might say—that gives them at once haptic as well as optic presence, for the connoisseur Bernard Berenson the signs of consummate painting.  If “the skin is the cradle of the soul,” as the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu argued, building on Freud’s idea of the skin ego,(2) then the skin of Neal’s paintings is full of soul—feeling, often ecstatically intense, and the fundament of being.  

Neal’s paintings are consummately romantic, for romanticism is a “mode of feeling,” as Baudelaire wrote. (3)  Abstract painting—Neal’s mode of painting--is the consummate form of romantic painting, as Kandinsky implies when he argues that “in every instance of a composition using purely abstract forms, the only judge, guide, and arbitrator should be one’s feelings.”(4)  For both Baudelaire and Kandinsky, color is the vehicle of feeling, whether it is color for its own musical sake, as they both thought, or color as it exists in nature, that is, attached to or associated with its flora and fauna, more broadly sky and the sea.  “In color are to be found harmony, melody and counterpoint,” Baudelaire wrote, calling it “a complex hymn.”  Kandinsky, a synesthesiac, heard music when he saw colors, arguing that the “musical sound” of a color “has direct access to the soul,” famously writing “color is the keyboard, the eye is the hammer, the soul is the piano, with its many strings.”  Color is the “subject matter” of romantic abstract painting, all the more so because it is experienced as a subjective matter, a form of feeling, more pointedly a musical manifestation of it, whatever its objective—material—character, that is, its physical reality.  It exists as an aesthetic and expressive end in itself in romantic abstract painting rather than as a descriptive device as it does in representational painting.

Flowers Partying, 22 x 28, Mixed media on Paper, 2011

In the best romantic abstract painting, such as Neal’s, it transcends the objects that manifest it.  There are no flowers in Neal’s Birth of Spring, no falling leaves in her Rhythms of Autumn #4, however nominally representational, but fresh, newborn colors and exciting, impassioned rhythms of color—a glorious symphony of eternally fresh colors, an ingenious contrapuntal harmony of colors, an intimate chamber music of different colors—whatever kind of music one sees in her complex compositions.  They are art at its most consummate, if art at its most consummate becomes music, as Walter Pater famously wrote, arguing that all art “aspires towards the condition of music,” in which matter and form are indistinguishable.  Similarly, the raw matter of nature, nominally acknowledged in the titles of Neal’s paintings, is alchemically refined by Neal’s art into musical colors, conveying her feelings.  Color is her god, and she worships The Gods of Color #7, 2017, the all-powerful Olympian gods, I suggest, for her colors radiate with power, dominate the white space of the paper, often filling it to overflowing, so that it is longer a vacuum but a cornucopia of colors, each enriching space with its sensuousness, its seductive immediacy and insinuating intensity.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and Neal’s paintings of nature, each a response to its colors, show there is no vacuum in nature.  What began with Impressionism, the celebration of colors for their own sake, tentative for the colors were still attached to nature, inseparable from its growths and sky, and as such atmospheric rather than ends in themselves, climaxes in Neal’s Abstract Expressionism, where the colors become aesthetic and expressive ends in themselves, and as such transcend the nature that is their source, or their foundation—but they float free of it, exist as autonomous phenomena, that is, for their own pure sake.  One only has to compare Emil Nolde’s Flower Garden (Without Figure), 1908—said to be one of the first works to celebrate color as such—with Neal’s In My Garden #25, 2011—to get the point:  color still adumbrates and enriches nature in Nolde’s painting, as it does in his many other flower paintings, while Neal’s nature, however much it is informed with color, is finally beside the point of her paintings.  They do not depict nature, as Nolde does, but turn it into a palette of rich colors.    

Thunder Head, 22 x 28, Mixed media on Paper, 2011

There is color field painting—broad planes of uniform colors, fitted into the Procrustean bed of the geometric plane—but there is also Neal’s more liberated, less hemmed in, uptight, not to say unrepressed handling of color, and with that a more authentic romantic abstract painting, truer to Baudelaire’s and Kandinsky’s idea of the range and intricacy of feelings it can express.  Color liberated from the confinement of the geometrically fixed plane is more authentically romantic—and an “abstract” end in itself, as it was for Kandinsky—than color confined in the ghetto of the plane, where it becomes bleak and anti-life, as it does in Rothko’s late works, full of ‘’strangulated affects,” a cause of inconsolable suffering, as Freud suggested.

Rothko was a New York painter; I suggest that his paintings become increasingly informed with the bleakness and grimness of New York, its peculiarly anti-life, inhospitable quality.  Neal lives and paints in Florida, a Southern state with a warmer climate, and with that a more physically and emotionally hospitable and enjoyable environment.  New York, a Northern city, is unnatural, whereas “the South…is all for nature,” “so beautiful and bright that nothing is left for man to desire,” as Baudelaire wrote.(5)  The hollow desire for power—not to say the brutal ambition, the will to power at the expense of happiness, the happiness implicit in Neal’s radiant colors, colors with inner light even when they are outwardly dark—is epitomized by New York’s skyscrapers:  it echoes in Rothko’s bleak, increasingly barren abstractions, their barrenness confirmed by their loss of complexity, the complexity that comes from being in the creative flow, to allude to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s important concept.(6)  From Csikszentmihaly’s point of view, the elated Neal has a “positive psychology,” the depressive Rothko—a suicide—has a “negative psychology.”  It is the difference, as Csikszentmihaly suggests, between being generative and degenerative.  Neal’s paintings are alive with flow, their colors move with the current of her energetic, generative hand and psyche.  

Fido's In Love, 22 x 28,  Mixed media on Paper, 2011

I am arguing that there is a radical, unresolvable difference between the Florida or Southern School of Abstract Expressionism, responsive to nature, and the New York or Northern School of Abstraction, responsive to society.  Environment makes a difference in art as in life, and New York’s cold urban environment is anti-life—the art historian Barbara Rose in her discussion of New York Abstract Expressionism remarks that it is informed by the city’s coarseness and callousness and harshness—while Florida’s warm natural environment is pro-life.  New York is not the most empathic environment, in contrast to Florida, which is by way of its warmth and sunniness, life-giving atmosphere, distilled to aesthetic perfection in Neal’s paintings, as their radiant, warm colors indicate.  Ponce de León, who discovered Florida, thought he had found the fountain of youth; Neal’s paintings show that he had.  There is an air of futility to Rothko’s paintings, suggesting they are informed by the death instinct—he eventually killed himself—while Neal’s works are informed by the life instinct—insistently libidinous, erotically fertile.  Neal’s works are lyrical abstractions,(7) Rothko’s works are pretentiously epic, like New York, the difference having in part to do with the places in which they were made.

Spy, Mixed media on Paper, 2011

However radiant, fluid, alive the reds that appear in many of Neal’s paintings—I Am Ready #27, 2011, Loquacious #22, 2011, Chasms 21, 2013, From There To Here, 2014, Lobsterella #14, 2016, among many other works--there is always blackness, as though holding the red back, suppressing its intensity, keeping us from being overwhelmed by it by reminding us that there is death as well as joy in nature:  Neal holds them together in a dynamic equilibrium, to use Kandinsky’s term, and with that achieves a masterful balance of forces, an ingenious integration of opposites, a convergence indicating what Freud called ego mastery of the instincts, the life and death instincts, a triumph of her creative consciousness over the unconscious.  “Black has an inner sound of nothingness bereft of possibilities, a dead nothingness as if the sun had become extinct, an eternal silence without future, without hope,” Kandinsky wrote.  In contrast, “Red is a limitless, characteristically warm color…a highly lively, living, turbulent color.”  More pointedly, it is “the color of fire and blood and regarded universally as the basic symbol of the life-principle, with its dazzling strength and power.”(8)  With that, red is a symbol of sensuality and passion, both expressions of the life-principle.  

River's Gold 2003 Acrylic on Wood 

Now in her eighties, Neal’s mastery of black and red, and her integration of them in amorphous splendor, and the flowing—indeed, overflowing--abundance in which they become manifest as though in an epiphany, is an especially significant triumph, a demonstration and proof that enthusiastic creativity is a way of mastering contradictory emotions—tying libidinous red and mortifying black in an aesthetic Gordian knot that no intellectual sword can cut, not even mine:  all I can do is admire her achievement by way of my own creative understanding.  There is always light in the darkening world—Fireflies at Dusk, 2020, always a Deep Discussion #17, 2020 between light and dark, an ingeniously eccentric, unexpected and unusual relation between them, nourished by bright light, the yellow of the morning sun, as in red Cardinals in Morning Harmony #13, 2020.  Red, yellow, blue, and green often swirl together, dervishing in the light of the white canvas, in Guardian #23, 2011, the white canvas playing its role as infinite light in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush #24, 2014.  In Rhythms of Autumn #4 the amorphous black seems overwhelming, but sunshine yellow appears at its edges and the hint of blue suggests the sky—all is not barren with impending winter, when nature seems to die.  In Sunrise Kiss #85, 2017 black and red unite in dialectical fervor, perhaps suggestive of sexual intercourse, the male black and female red wrapped around each other, the dark night and the dawning day not at odds, at least for an erotic moment.  Ying and Yang #10, 2014, black and red abutting but not exactly interacting, makes the metaphysical as well as physical “concerns” of Neal’s paintings conspicuously clear.  Love [is] in Bloom #12, 2019 in most of Neal’s paintings, but black death can suddenly appear like a blot on the light, as Listening To Him #16, 2017 suggests.  Eros and Thanatos are the fundamental subject matter of Neal’s metamorphic paintings, to emphasize their thematic consistency.  Dare one say, in perhaps a reckless interpretation, that red Eros and black Thanatos are implicitly woman and man, suggesting that Neal’s paintings are an abstract version of the proverbial Death and the Maiden theme?   I am suggesting that Neal, like all true artists, “there is not one single phenomenon of her double nature of which she is ignorant,” as Baudelaire said one has to be if one is to make art—unconsciously convincing as well as consciously engaging art.  But there is an idealization of sensation for its own pure sake that transcends doubleness, as the pyrotechnical display of colors, along with broad planes of white and sudden traces of black, that transcends doubleness in Neal’s Rise To The Occasion #3, 2017, a masterpiece of amorphous process painting at its most uncanny and complex.   

Wine Knot

I think Neal’s paintings are distinctly a woman’s painting, and I think that woman’s painting—certainly woman’s painting of the caliber of Neal’s paintings—are more inherently, that is, deeply creative than men’s painting.  I contend, also no doubt controversially, that female abstract expressionist paintings tend to be more full of libidinous, biophilic feelings than male abstract expressionist paintings, which tend to be more full of aggressive, necrophiliac feelings—de Kooning’s being the case in point for male abstract paintings, Neal’s being the case in point for women’s abstract paintings.  De Kooning’s paintings are full of hate and anger—one only has to look at his paintings of women to get the point—while Neal’s paintings are full of love and joy.  More pointedly, they are superb examples of what the scholar Barbara Claire Freeman calls “the feminine sublime,”(9) with its aura of excess and abundance—the promise of plenty that exists in the womb--as distinct from “the masculine sublime,” which is more limited however grand, like a proud penis.  The feminine sublime is oceanic space, as Neal’s paintings are, and as such wombcenrtric, for life was born in the sea, while the male sublime is earthbound however high it rises above the earth, like a mountain, and as such phallocentric.  The associations can be traced back to antiquity.  The distinction can be traced back to the distinction between Venus, the goddess of love born from the sea, and Mars, the powerful god of war.  Clearly, de Kooning is at war with woman, while Neal is not at war with man.     


But the point I want to make is that primary creativity is built into woman in the form of a womb.  Fertilized by color—many colors—Neal’s white paper—in effect a womb—generates and gives birth to healthy, beautiful paintings.  I suggest that man’s creativity is secondary; it involves identification with woman, internalization of her womb and its creative capacity, its capacity to give birth to those spiritual children called works of art as well as to all too human children.  It the internalization is incomplete or unsuccessful, as seems the case with de Kooning, the abstract expressionist work may seem peculiarly misbegotten and offensive.  Not a single one of Neal’s paintings is offensive—insults our eyes, injures our psyche—as de Kooning’s vicious paintings of women are, among them Woman III, 1953, and nihilistic sculptures of her body, sadistically eviscerated in Seated Woman on a Bench, 1972.             

Since the “Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibition held at the Denver Art Museum in 2016, women abstract expressionist painters have begun to receive recognition for their creativity and originality.  Neal’s abstract expressionist paintings hold their own with those in the exhibition, but what makes her abstract paintings special, to my mind’s eye and psyche, more valuable emotionally and more aesthetically convincing, is that they are tender-minded rather than tough-minded, to use William James’ distinction, however strong-willed her handling.  It is why I am grateful for Neal’s lyrical expressionist paintings, full of joie de vivre rather than Sturm und Drang.  It is easier to be outraged and angry today than to be grateful to nature, which is still alive, as Neal is, however much it has been said to be dead,(10) and it is necessary to be in world full of depressing, violent, surreally absurd societies, a world in what the surrealist André Breton called miserabilism has become endemic. WM


(1)Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-1873:  The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1982), 136.  Impressionism is the fulfillment of what began with the Barbizon School.  

(2)Andrzej Webart, “The Skin is the Cradle of the Soul:  Didier Anzieu on the Skin-Ego, Boundaries, and Boundlessness,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 67, February 2019.37-58

(3)Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” The Mirror of Art (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1956), 47.  All subsequent quotations from Baudelaire are from this text.

(4)Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular,” Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 169.  All subsequent quotations from Kandinsky are from this text.

(5)As she writes, Neal has “lived, worked and studied in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Portugal, and Argentina” for 16 years, and currently lives in Merritt Island, Florida.  These are all Southern places.

(6)Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York:  Harper and Row, 1990) 

(7)Lyrical abstraction developed in opposition to geometric abstraction, so-called “cold abstraction,” more broadly rigid abstraction.  More pointedly, it was opposed to the rigidity of Greenbergian formalism, with its denial of the affective resonance of the material medium, regarded as an opaque end in itself, and with indifference to the socio-cultural character of the abstract work, more broadly what Greenberg dismissed as its “all too human” import.  For Greenberg, in good part responsible for Pollock’s fame, Pollock’s insistence that his paintings were an expression of his unconscious—more particularly his annihilative anxiety, more generally his self-destructive tendencies, not to say alcohol-fueled aggression, which led him to seek psychoanalytic treatment--had nothing to do with their success as a manipulation of paint to achieve an aesthetic effect.  Lyrical abstraction is a response to the absurdity of Greenberg’s limited understanding of abstraction, painterly or post-painterly, to use his terms.      

Kenworth Moffett, a disciple of Greenberg, acknowledged that Neal was a “process painter,” who like Pollock gave herself over to the material medium, treating it as an end in itself, but she painted with acrylic gel rather than oil, harder to master than oil, for it is heavier and denser.  For Moffett Neal’s  texture is more to the point of her painterliness than what it evokes—he vaguely suggests that it reveals “spirit,” perhaps tipping his hat to Kandinsky without understanding what he meant by “spirit.”  For Moffitt Neal’s work is naively materialistic rather than emotionally sophisticated—another example of what Greenberg called positivistic painting rather than what Baudelaire called imaginative painting, that is, painterly painting that gives the materiality of the medium emphatic presence rather than painterly painting that used the materiality of the medium to give feeling emphatic presence, that is, convey what Greenberg, alluding to Freud’s topographic model of the psyche, dismissively called “preconscious and unconscious feeling.”  It is the difference between celebrating the material paint as an end in itself by dramatizing it, and between using it to materialize immaterial feeling, and with that to represent it so that it becomes comprehensible, which is what Neal’s romantic painting does.  Moffett sells Neal’s art short with his vague allusion to “spirit”—he is blind to the fact that it is a climactic statement of romantic painting, a grand assertion of the romantic attitude to art--just as Greenberg sells Pollock’s art short by ignoring, even denying, that it had anything to do with his psychopathology and suicide.  Moffett’s Artletter 2.0.

(8)Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London:  Penguin, 1996), 792

(9)Barbara Claire Freeman, The Feminine Sublime:  Gender and Excess in Woman’s Fiction (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1995).

(10)The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution by Carol Merchant and The End of Nature by Bill McKibben are among the many books that argue it is dead, and presumably cannot be resurrected. 


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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