Artist of the Month: Alice Neel

Artist of the Month (July)

Alice Neel
Picture 16
Detail from Andy Warhol (1970), from the Whitney Museum of American Art and now featured in the show Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. Copyright belongs to the Artist and the Artist’s Estate 2016.

I recently saw the above portrait of Andy Warhol by Neel at the Whitney and felt overwhelmed and inspired. Alice Neel is renowned for her raw, minimalistic works that express the essence of her subjects’ characters in an intimate and truthful fashion. Like her contemporary (albeit of another medium) Diane Arbus, Neel seems to have gotten otherwise private individuals to open up to her and in the process, confront themselves and their inherent humanity through her depictions of them. At least that’s certainly the case in this particular piece, as best encapsulated or indicated by the accompanying wall text–

Dubbed by an art critic a “collector of souls,” Alice Neel portrayed an extraordinary variety of sitters, from the anonymous to the highly recognizable, as in this portrait of the renowned Pop artist Andy Warhol. Here, Neel captures the vulnerability of an artist whose work and public persona were famous for their cool detachment. When in public, Warhol typically cloaked himself in a variety of guises—wigs, makeup, sunglasses, and a practiced air of disinterestedness. He once remarked, “Nudity is a threat to my existence.” Neel painted the Pop artist provocateur with his eyes closed and shirt removed, exposing his pale, scarred torso and the supportive corset he was forced to wear after being shot in 1968 by Valerie Solanas, a former member of his studio entourage. The canvas is limited to cool hues, such as a swatch of light blue surrounding Warhol’s head and upper body, whose fragile, androgynous contours are outlined in Neel’s signature aquamarine pigment. The background is spare, with only the outline of a couch, thereby emphasizing what she described as the picture’s “hypersensitive economy.” Depicting Warhol as isolated, wounded, and withdrawn, Neel shows us an unexpected, and perhaps more profound, side of her fellow artist.

So many aspects of that description and the work itself resonated with me, specifically the focus on Andy’s physical suffering and the near sense of resignation and acceptance that is visible across his face and being; it is part of what renders her study intensely poignant and memorable.

Another one of Neel’s more famous paintings is this sensational piece, which is prominently featured in the Met Breuer’s oft-referenced UnfinishedI keep promising a review, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to get to that shortly. For now, check this out.

And while I’m at it, below you’ll find Neel’s short bio, courtesy of Artsy.

Alice Neel, one of the great portraitists of the 20th century, made starkly honest paintings of relatives, lovers, friends, and neighbors. A successor to the expressionism of Chaim Soutine, Edward Munch, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Neel used distorted drawing and invented color to reveal the character beneath each sitter’s physical appearance. Neel worked in obscurity for most of her career, painting a range of locals from salesmen to the homeless, but during the last two decades of her life, she finally gained recognition, receiving many honors and awards. Her later paintings include portraits of celebrity artists like Andy Warhol (as we just discussed) and Marisol, as well notable people such as Mayor Ed Koch and Bella Abzug.

For more on Neel, this article is another excellent start, and I would also recommend watching a documentary about her, created posthumously by a relative and which can be found here.

2 comments

  1. Moselle- Thank you so much for this amazing post. I was not familiar with Neel’s work and I am deeply moved and definitely plan to further explore her art! Thanks for broadening my horizons!

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