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Neel Life Stories

Alice Neel's portraits stripped her subjects bare -- often literally -- and expertly revealed their inner lives. On the eve of a Whitney retrospective, Neel's subjects reflect on sitting for a modern master.

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Probably no other twentieth-century American figurative painter developed as singular a style as Alice Neel. Her provocative portraits of art-world celebrities like Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg -- along with dozens of other people who caught her fancy -- made her the quintessential artist's artist. But broad public recognition of Neel's work was anything but immediate. Her portraits and dark social commentaries seemed hopelessly out of date during the mid-century decades of Abstract Expressionism; it wasn't until the seventies that Neel, who died in 1984, really began to enjoy success. Now, 26 years after her first Whitney retrospective, figurative painting is the artistic style of the moment and Neel, its most uncompromising proponent, is about to be fêted again. "The Art of Alice Neel," a traveling exhibit organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and opening at the Whitney on June 29, stands to reveal the painter not just as an idiosyncratic voice but an influential one.

Neel, born in 1900, was raised in a middle-class family on the outskirts of Philadelphia, but she left convention behind early. Even before she arrived in New York in 1927, she had married a Cuban artist and lost a child to diphtheria. Three years later, her husband deserted her, returning to Cuba with their second daughter, leaving Neel, in his wake, hospitalized for depression.

Over the next few decades, Neel moved from the West Village to a Spanish Harlem tenement; raised two sons, Richard and Hartley Neel, by two different fathers -- she never married again -- worked off and on for the WPA; and painted furiously.

As a portraitist, Neel was a genius at detecting her subjects' inner lives. She was also notorious for exposing -- and exaggerating -- her subjects' flaws. Even so, a stunning number of otherwise sensible citizens left their vanity at the door, allowing her to transform them via her own startling vision. Asking someone to sit was her highest compliment. Plus, she told great stories. Below, eleven of Neel's subjects recall the artist and the experience of sitting for her.

John Perreault
Art critic, poet, director of
UrbanGlass

I first met Alice when I was assigned to do a review of her work for ARTnews. Then, in 1972, I was scheduled to do my first exhibition as a curator at the School of Visual Arts, where I was teaching, so I did an exhibition of the male nude. I particularly wanted to show Alice's Joe Gould painting from the twenties, the three penises. No one had ever shown it -- it was too controversial.

So I called her up and I went over to her apartment on 107th Street. And she said, "Who else is going to be in the show?" and I told her. And she said, "They're all showing new paintings, aren't they?" I said, "Well, some are a few years old." And she said, "I have to do a new painting, too. And I've always wanted to paint you; you remind me of a faun. So lie down there on the sofa." I was young and carefree then, so I committed myself to doing the painting. Which is kind of nervy when you consider that this curator is posing for a painting that's going to be in the show he's curating.

I went up to sit for her seventeen times. She labored over it. The routine was I would come there at around noon and she would give me little bits of cheese and crackers, because she liked the idea of feeding a starving poet. She would paint until it was dark and she had trouble with her eyes, and I would say, "Alice, can you really see what you're doing?"

She was the kind of painter who talked while she painted. I was a good audience for her, because I was very interested to hear what it was like to live in New York City during the Depression. So in this living-room area, I'm posing stark naked; Nancy, her daughter-in-law, is coming in and out of the room; Alice is chatting away about the Depression and this boyfriend and that boyfriend. She looked like a grandmother -- a Saturday Evening Post grandmother. She had that beauty that an older woman can have. She had great eyes; she had the devil in her eyes. She had a foul mouth, and she was a vicious gossip. So there I was, lying naked in front of a vicious gossip.

She left to the last my genital area, so there was a big hole in the painting until the final session. And of course I was terrified when I would sneak looks at the painting, because she could be quite devastating when she painted you. My penis came out much larger in the painting.

I was so suprised that she referred to me as being a faun -- you don't usually think of her as doing paintings that have any classical allusions at all. But in fact I had often identified with the faun. I had even dressed up as a faun for a Halloween party. So I don't know if she picked up on my subconscious or what.

I'm very happy that she conned me into posing for her. Tom Armstrong director of the Whitney, 1974-1990 liked my portrait a lot, and he had it hung in his dining room. Alice was very careful with my portrait, and I still don't know why. She was merciless to other people. There's that painting of former Whitney director Lloyd Goodrich, which is not very flattering, and he certainly could have helped her.


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