By: Jim Lane
Last Sickness by Alice Neel
30"x22" oil on canvas, 1953
Click on picture for more of Alice's work.
The 1970s were all about breaking down barriers. Artists like Robert Smithson did it with a bulldozer and tons of rock, building a spiral jetty out into Great Salt Lake Utah. Artists like Christo and Jeane-Claude did it by ERECTING a barrier, the Running Fence across northern California, a work that was aimed at bringing together diverse factions of society first in ALLOWING the controversial work to be executed, then in the execution of the thing itself. These works broke down those barriers marking the outer limits of what was considered to BE art at the time. About the same time, a different type of barrier was being broken down as well. The artists of the feminist movement were knocking (sometimes BEATING) on the doors of galleries and museums, trying to break down those barriers blocking the recognition and acceptance of their art not because it was created BY women but that it was created ABOUT women.
Some of the most important women in this endeavor were Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Ana Mendieta, and Alice Neel. Chicago and Schapiro were West Coast artist and teachers working in a variety of flat and sculptural media while Ana Mendieta was breaking new ground in the most radical of all art forms, performance art. However the grandmother of them all was Alice Neel. She was born in 1900 and her exceptionally long life span as a working artist bridged so many art eras from the 1920s through the early 80s that her lifetime output is a background history against which the work of other female artists can be subject in comparison.
Ms. Neel was academically trained at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women during the 1920s, but it wasn't until 1974 that she had her first, one-woman show. That's what you call a lifetime struggle. Actually, that's exactly what it was. One of her children died in infancy. Another was kidnapped by the child's father, and both these events were reflected in her early, expressionistic paintings of children. She settled in New York after college where she began her painting career. During the 1930s she began to specialize in deeply probing portraits of some of her acquaintances, eventually including other artists, as well as critics, and gallery owners. She immersed herself in various radical social and cultural movements while working for the WPA, resolving to portray individuals from all walks of life, not just from the city's elite.
The painting above, dating from the brief period when her mother came to live with her just before her death, is typical of the probing, compassionate, beauty Alice found in even the most traditionally "UNbeautiful" subjects. Her work includes portraits of dying TB patients, pregnant mothers-to-be (nude, by the way), the homeless, and poor are masterpieces of caring, understanding, insightful portraiture like none before. The painting of her mother is of a woman who told her as a child, "I don't know what you expect to do in your world. You're only a girl." Alice saw those words as those of a woman frustrated in having no outlet for her own creativity and intellect. The woman is frail in appearance, yet the painting is strong in composition with its stable, horizontal and vertical lines. It is intimate without being sentimental.
In contrast, her 1970 portrait of Andy Warhol, nude to the waist, revealing scars from an earlier attempt on his life, finds the Pop artist seated weightlessly on a tiny couch, his eyes closed, head tilted upward, as if trying to float free from the frail body he detested. Like so many of her other works in her "collection of souls", as she called them, Neel has peeled away the outer "public" layer to reveal the vulnerable soul inside. In the late 1970s she said, "I do not know if the truth that I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others. It is hard to go against the tide of one's time, milieu, and position. But at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and a woman. Not that I felt they were all that different from men's." She died in 1984, having worked and waited a lifetime for the barriers to fall--for the prevailing aesthetics to adjust to her insights.
is fifty-ish, balding, bearded, bespectacled, professorial, outgoing, knowledgable about a lot of things, expert on a very few. He grew up in the small town of Stockport, situated on the Muskingum River in Southeastern Ohio. He graduated from a un-noteworthy business college in Cincinnati, from the U.S. Air Force, and from Ohio University where he also obtained a masters degree and wracked up several hours of post-graduate work as well. For most of his professional life he's run a portrait business out of his home, specializing in sports portraits done in pencil and colored pencil.
Happily married for almost 30 years, Jim taught elementary and high school art for 26 years and also spent many enjoyable hours in the front of a local community college classroom. Recently he has retired from teaching in favor of painting, traveling, writing, designing web pages, and "...doing things I've never done before."
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