Friday, May 7, 2010

Alice Neel: Tough Love

Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht,
Tief ist ihr Weh -,Lust - tiefer noch als
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit -, - will tiefe, tiefe

(Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900)

"Malraux, drunk with our age, can say about Cezanne: 'It is not the mountain he wants to realize but the picture.' All that Cezanne said and did was not enough to make Malraux understand what no earlier age could have failed to understand: that to Cezanne the realization of the picture necessarily involved the realization of the mountain. And whether we like it or not, notice it or not, notice it or not, the mountain is there to be realized. Man and the world are all that they ever were - their attractions are, in the end, irresistible; the painter will not hold against them long."

Randall Jarrell, from No Other Book: Selected Essays by Randall Jarrell

Robert Storr on Alice Neel: Neel "has often been compared to the collector of dead souls" in Gogol's short story.
I would argue that art today is made with much exercise and little vitality; Alice Neel is a collector of souls that are very much alive with their own, and Neel's vitality. No matter what kind of lumpen or just forming (children's) flesh the soul comes through with the accuracy of Nabokov's so beloved butterflies. Now we can say along with G. C. Lichtenberg that underneath each of these jokes there lies a problem. That Neel balances a vaudevillean humor with irony in its Greek and most tragic sense is indicative of the depth of Neel's absolute and impervious humanity. Calling down the sort of wrath of Mighty Aphrodite - that she was sexy, vital and erotic in life and in the touch of her paintbrush to canvas is never in question - this is the archaic way that she collected these souls as one man put it so assuredly in the documentary - tough love indeed for this mother of everyone. In the Greek Hera and Aphrodite blend she was doubtlessly born into by both Nature and Nurture. Following on the Aristotlean table of virtues and vices, she hit the golden mean in nearly all and was only a narcissist in the way that geniuses are narcissists.

Mira Schor on Alice Neel: "Alice Neel (1900-1984) began painting in the 1920s in a realist style influenced by expressionism and surrealism. In choosing to remain committed to figuration in the 1950s, Neel overtly disobeyed the dominant legislation of high modernism that, as Griselda Pollock states, "outlawed questions of the social, that is, all ideological baggage that presented art from saving itself from a capitalist system." Neel's artistic and personal trajectory was perhaps even more extralegal than that of her contemporaries Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler: she did not take the road of attaching herself to a famous abstract artist. Thus, though she lived a sexually adventurous life, she did so without the social benefits that such aan association would have offered. She had two children (two of them later in life and "out of wedlock"), maintained an activist in leftist politics, lived in Spanish Harlem rather than in the approved territory of the art world below Fourteenth Street, and committed herself to human subjects who often, especially early on, lived at the margins of established social
hierarchies - women, the poor, poets, artists, the elderly, people of color."

"Neel is as great a painter of abstract expressionist marks as de Kooning and Soutine, and I tend to look for those marks in her work, as much as I may read the expression or character of the subject." (From Mira Schor's essay Some Notes on women and Abstraction and a Curious Case History: Alice Neel as a Great Abstract Painter.)

This essay is dedicated to my mother and all my matrilineage; and Mira Schor, Rob Storr and Randall Jarrell.

The World is Deep and Deeper than Daylight May Reveal

My mother was a lot like Alice Neel in temperament, with her Serbian mother and Scotts-Irish father from Beech Fork, West Virginia, and she only encouraged me when I was bold, outspoken and talented in everything I endeavored. If I cried that meant I didn't get anything but humiliation - she studied Ancient History when she went to graduate school and her views like Alice Neel's, coming from a poor background, were archaic, exactly like Alice Neel's when she said humanity hasn't changed - "I read about the 15th century and it was exactly the same." Like Neel, she played tough times and hard knocks for entertainment and humor, something that is often misread here in Manhattan where people don't give you a New York second unless you talk bios and small talk, and she had a gift like Alice's for pushing buttons. And while she looked outwardly like a housewife she was quite belligerent just as Alex Katz said in the documentary [ ]/. So much so that I had a smile of recognition as he was saying it, remembering my mother and her encounters, and also the immediate impression in a show organized around the curatorial theme of the portrait, of Alice Neel's painting KOing Alex Katz's out of the room. (My problems with Alex Katz's work can be summed up as the same I had with Ellen Gilchrist's writing, which one critic summed up as "white people drinking white wine and whining."

The famous Cezanne painting shows me that early on Neel was what has now become known as a Cezannist, and that she successfully consumed and ate the father, in the sense that Randall Jarrell wrote of Picasso "- that if Picasso limited himself to one thing he would not be Picasso: he loves the world and wants to eat it."

"As I go about the world I see things (people; their looks and feelings and thoughts; the things their thoughts have made, and the things that neither they or their thoughts had anything to do with making: the whole range of the world)." Jarrell again. the documentary my husband and I watched the other night made by her son had her succinct and accurate summing up of the three things she looked for in her paintings; "I look for it first to be art you know, so actually dividing up the canvas is one of the most exciting things for me. Then I like it to not only look like the person, but to have their inner character as well. And then, I like it to express the zeitgeist." This reminds me of Linda Nochlin's writing on figurative painting and realism:

The art historian Linda Nochlin described modern art as splitting apart several elements that had been combined and integrated: the concerns with imagination, with natural reality, and with the material medium of the art work. In 1867, she says, Charles Blanc expressed the “traditional position in art” when he wrote: “Painting is the art of expressing all the conceptions of the soul by means of all the realities of nature, represented on a single surface in their forms and in their colors.” This integrated, premodernist mode could be compared to David Rapaport’s conception of the normal, adult Rorschach response process, in which perception of the stimulus characteristics of the blot (corresponding to the material medium), associations to memory images of real-world objects (corresponding to natural reality), and concept formation (corresponding to Blanc’s “conceptions of the soul”) work together to produce the normal perception of a recognizable three-dimensional object, without the subject’s ever being conscious of the integrated “cogwheeling” of these processes.

Once I got a fortune cookie at a place in Chinatown that read "a room full of pictures is a room full of thoughts." That it was the lunch after my speaking in front of my work in a show juried by Irving Sandler and Claudia Gould seemed like some kind of coincidence I couldn't overlook. I bought the book from Robert Miller accompanying an exhibition of Neel's art from the thirties and have just now read the essay by Wayne Kostenbaum from there, and looks like it gave us familiarly similar poetic take. In a sense, I have been writing this essay since making my first fresco at Skowhegan - a reinterpretation of her portrait of a doll that embodied a kind of melancholy in Cuba of that time. That so many people write so well, such moving and haunting and above all politically engaged essays about her work, is because she makes us want to eat the world again, and that is food for some of the best thoughts.