Sunday, June 21, 2009

Artist's Lives

Artist's Lives

We saw the documentary about Alice Neel last night, made by her grandson, Andrew Neel. it was so moving, as Neel was part of a generation of women that had few role models for making the choice to be an artist first. Born in 1900 and raised working class, she put herself through art school in Philadelphia. Always dedicated to her art, her life was an odyssey through husbands and children, lovers and sitters. She had her first two children with Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban painter from a wealthy family.

The first died of diptheria, and the second, a daughter named Isabetta (born 1928), she lost when Enriquez returned to Cuba (they were living in Philadelphia) with the daughter. Neel became suicidal, spent time in an asylum, and when better moved to New York. It is incredible how poor Neel was through much of her life. In 1933, Neel was hired by the WPA, which afforded her a modest weekly salary. In the 1930s Neel gained a degree of notoriety as an artist, and established a good standing within her circle of downtown intellectuals and Communist Party leaders. She was never an official member of the party, but always felt a kinship with the ideals of Communism, common for the time among liberals and intellectuals.

Then she became involved with Jose Santiago, a Puerto Rican night club singer, and had her first son, Richard. They moved uptown, to Spanish Harlem, which she said was the "kiss of death" for her career. Even though she wasn't selling her work at all when she lived in the Village, she was in the heart of the creative community there. She separated from Jose, and a few years later, had her second son, Hartley, with her then-lover Sam Brody.
Although Brody was abusive, one of the things she remarked on in the film was the fact that he was the first person to truly believe in her as a painter. This was one of the tragic facets of her life, as the abuse took such a huge toll on her sons' lives, fully evident in watching them talk about their growing up and their mother. They both discuss how difficult their lives were--being so poor, their mother's focus on being an artist (her studio was the focal point of their small NY apartment), and the horrors of Sam Brody. Yet, they did not reject her, and in their ways, seem to accept the choices she made. It seems that this is the way life is--no matter what life you are born into, ultimately--hopefully--you try to find a way to resolve what happened. Especially when it comes to your family. So complex.

The most amazing part of the film was watching Neel paint, which occupies much of the footage. She talks a great deal about her life, and observing her painting some of the amazing portraits that were the focus of her life--Meyer Shapiro, Virgil Thompson, and an amazing portrait of Andy Warhol after he had been shot (among the famous); her sons, husband, Isabetta as a child; and the various individuals who populated her life, first in the Village, and later in Spanish Harlem--was astounding. She had a remarkable ability to make her sitters feel comfortable, and her portraits, for me, are like Picasso's: penetrating, distilling the essence of a person with an economy of means. The eyes of her sitters are amazing, and her dedicated choice to paint minimal settings, and to strip away unnecessary detail have astounding effect.

The film is so powerful, it made me and others in the room cry--we were so overcome with emotion because she was so well intentioned, so challenged by the circumstances of her life (female, mostly single, raising two children); dedicated to her work as a painter; and so talented. It was tremendously moving that she did get recognition in her lifetime--a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and receiving an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York. These awards and recognition were late in life, and through it all, she just kept painting.

Some of those who spoke of her remarkable influence in the film include Robert Storr, Chuck Close, and Marlene Dumas, all of whom talk about her power in capturing character. As Neel said, "I want to capture the zeitgeist," and I believe in many ways she did capture the vulnerability and humanity of her time in powerful ways.

If you are surprised by my passion for this painter, take a look at the film. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it. Here's the link for it:

Here's an interview with her grandson, Andrew Neel, about the film:

Andrew Neel goes behind his grandmother's expressionistic paintings to reveal an intimate side of the legendary portraitist

The paintings of Alice Neel stare you down. Neel’s subject is intimacy, and her cool portraits of friends and family, New York sophisticates or neighorhood children, all have the haunting ability of freezing you in place, almost surveying you as you study them in and out of clothes or marriages or pregnancies or chairs. It is rather fitting that director Andrew Neel has chosen to make a documentary of his own departed grandmother, splicing archival footage of the artist with interviews of family members and fellow painters. Because capturing the full range of a person seems to be something of a Neel talent. The resultant documentary Alice Neel premiered this spring, and it’s one of the most moving portraits of a difficult icon to make it to the screen in some time. The young Neel answered a few of our questions about memorializing his grandmother.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN Were you aware as a child that your grandmother was a famous artist?

ANDREW NEEL Not really. I knew there was something important about what she was doing, but one doesn't really grasp the concept of 'famous' at that age.
CB In the film, Alice’s sons seem to have pushed away from bohemianism. Do you think it skipped a generation and you have something of your grandmother’s bend?
AN Well, I think my parents are eccentrics. They are bohemians in their own way...and I think my sister and I inherited some of their eccentricities. But really the answer to your questions is yes. Hartley and his brother [Alice's sons] were searching for security in their private and personal lives. My sister Elizabeth and I really are not as interested in the trappings of the buttoned-up work-a-day world...marriage...babysitters, etc.
CB Did you find it difficult to interview your own family? Did they try to prevent certain topics being raised?
AN I think it was as hard as any other interview where you are asking intimate questions. Hartley and Richard don’t like subjects that put Alice in a bad light. They loved her and respected her so much. They are annoyed when people focus on the sensational details (that are usually bad). So they were somewhat resistant to talking about some of that stuff. But in the end, being smart people, they felt I was trying to accomplish something interesting and that was more important than controlling information.
CB What did you discover about your grandmother that you didn't know before you started?
AN She had a still-born child in 1939 with Jose (that detail didn't make it into the movie). I can't say I had any sort of dramatic discovery, but my whole conception of her became much more dense and complete.
CB One of the themes of the documentary is that of motherhood—specifically, was Alice Neel a good mother? Did she protect her children, even from her art? What were your conclusions on this?
AN I don’t like making conclusions about people. I think it’s a limited way of looking, especially at enigmatic people like Alice. She didn't protect them as well as she might have in certain situations. I think she made mistakes. But despite that, she was a wonderful mother. She got them all the amenities and advantages of wealthy children. She got them into private schools. She sent them to prestigious piano lessons and ballet school. She saved money in her mattress and bought them Lionel Train sets (which only the wealthy kids had in those days). She gave them self confidence and a respect for art and learning.
CB What do you think is harder—to be a painter in Alice Neel’s day or a documentary filmmaker in Andrew Neel’s day?
AN Being a painter in Alice Neel's day was harder, without a doubt. We have so many places we can show our films today. That doesn't make it peachy. Sometimes it makes it more annoying...but easier too.
CB What is your favorite painting by your grandmother?
AN Joe Gould 1933 (because it freaks people out); Julie and Alges (because it's hot and twisted in some sort of weird, pregnant way); Randal in Extremes (because it's a testament to how hard and anxious it is to be a human being).

Images, in order:

Spanish Harlem

Alice with Enrique, Chester Springs, 1924

Isabetta, 1934

Composite image w/Alice in Studio

Hartley, 1965

Alice with Model

Two Girls, 1959

Andy Warhol, 1970

Alice at opening of her retrospective,

Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980

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