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Neel Life Stories

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Marisol Escobar
Sculptor

I didn't want to pose. Alice forced me to.

I knew her for a long time. I used to see her at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters -- she went there often because she lived nearby. I knew her when the art world was smaller and people used to go to different openings and everyone knew each other. I liked her, but she was always angry. I remember when she was very old and she was bitter. Maybe because she didn't get enough recognition, but I doubt that was why. She would always insult me. She would say some nasty remark. At first I didn't like it, but then I got used to it. That was before she painted me.

She really forced me into sitting for her -- one of her daughters-in-law came to pick me up. I don't like to sit still while somebody paints me. But I liked her, anyway. She was such a character. She was very strong.

Annie Sprinkle
Performance artist

She had painted my friend Dennis Florio, who was a kind of picture framer to the stars. Dennis took me over to Alice's a couple of times just to visit, and we got to know each other. I was in the mainstream sex industry -- a professional call girl, a porn star, and a sexual-rights activist. She was fascinated by the work I was doing in pornography, sex workers' rights, trying to decriminalize prostitution, so she asked if she could paint me, and I said of course.

I found the experience very erotic -- I thought she was a very sexy, powerful woman. She was passionate about every little thing. She would almost have an orgasm over my high heels. I brought lots of costumes. I had just gotten my labia pierced, and she really liked that. It was unusual at the time; now everyone has it. She was a sexy woman, very attractive. So there was an erotic connection between us.

Alice brought the lowbrow into the highbrow. We both got a thrill out of her being 83 or 84 and me being the sex-goddess slut that I was. I went on to become an artist -- I think Alice influenced me. I'm in the Ph.D. program to be a sexologist at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. I've done everything else, so I thought I should get a Ph.D. Alice would be proud of me.

Richard Neel
Son of Alice

The date of the one that I remember posing for -- and she painted me as a baby -- was in Spring Lake, New Jersey, in 1945 or '46, and I think I'd just been at summer camp. And what I remember from that was the awkwardness of the pose. I had my hand up, like this, although that's characteristic of me. I can still remember the sitting in that chair, the feeling of the chair. Alice always did make you sit a little bit longer than you wanted to. For that painting, I doubt whether there were more than three sittings. From then on, there are a lot of paintings of me, and my brother and me.

Alice always, even before she was recognized, thought that she was a great artist, and she led all of us to believe that that was the case. She always taught us to respect the work and to respect her sense of its value. I was not known as a good artist in class, but I always thought that if I asked my mother to give me lessons, I could become a really good illustrator or whatever. I persisted in that idea until I was about 12 years old. I even told some of the girls in class that I had a mother who was an artist and she'd teach me how to be one, too. But I don't think anyone outside the family circle was impressed, at that time.

Every painting was a different experience. Once, we were having coffee in the cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art, and she said, "Gee, I love that pose -- when you get home, I'll paint you in that pose." So I posed at home pretending I was at the Museum of Modern Art.

Nancy Neel
Richard Neel's former wife

The first real memory I have of meeting Alice was on New Year's Eve of 1957. Alice's apartment was a great place to go. So for some reason, a whole crowd of us landed there for a period of time -- we were traveling around the city to different parties. She was interesting to me because she was immediately enthusiastic.

She didn't paint me until 1963, right after Richard and I were married. Someone came in and saw it and said, "I don't know what Nancy turns into at midnight." It was never shown -- it was a real monster. It's in storage now. Maybe she wasn't happy that her first son had just gotten married.

I think our personalities fit well together, because she was outgoing and I was more reticent. And I wasn't an artist and I wasn't competing with her.

There are special circumstances surrounding each painting she did of me. The one of Olivia and me was done in Spring Lake. I remember Olivia was a very active child, she was about three months old. Olivia was always jumping around, and she didn't like to sit still. Alice would say, "Keep that baby still." I wasn't very successful in keep-ing her quiet, but the painting did get painted. But of course the way people interpret the picture is that I was a scared mother. She was my first child, and I knew nothing about taking care of kids. I thought the uncomfortable look I have in the portrait was just me trying to keep Olivia still, but what Alice picked up on is that I didn't know what I was doing.


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