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Unlucky in love and life but undaunted and original in her art

By Jonathan Lopez
December 12, 2010

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Alice Neel enjoyed the greatest second act in the history of American art. Her paintings of New York bohemian life earned high praise, especially from leftist critics, during the Great Depression, but she fell into near-total obscurity with the rise of abstract expressionism after World War II.

Undaunted, she persevered as a painter of the human form, cultivating an idiosyncratic style that combined bright colors with springy, caricature-like drawing in psychologically rich oil portraits of art-world movers and shakers like Andy Warhol, Robert Smithson, and Frank O’Hara during the 1960s and ’70s. A minor celebrity by the time of her death in 1984, Neel was rightly hailed as a feminist icon, a tough survivor who charted her own path to success in the male-dominated art world, never bowing to trends or fashion.

Art journalist Phoebe Hoban, author of “Basquiat’’ (1998), provides a methodically documented account of Neel’s life and career in the first full-length biography of the artist. Hoban clearly admires Neel and sympathizes with the struggles that carried this young woman from a Victorian upbringing in the lower-middle-class environs of Philadelphia to a complicated existence as a working artist and single mother in New York.

Neel’s personal travails were genuine. Her first daughter died in infancy. The second was taken away by Neel’s ne’er-do-well Cuban artist husband when he ran off to Havana, never to return. Neel suffered a nervous collapse in the wake of this incident, attempted suicide, and was briefly institutionalized. She soon recovered and returned to her studio and to a series of tortured love affairs. In 1934, one of her boyfriends destroyed more than 300 of her oil paintings and watercolors in a fit of jealous rage.

Neel would go on to have two sons out of wedlock by two fathers. The older child developed severe vision problems — a source of great dismay to his mother — and was routinely abused, both physically and emotionally, by the younger boy’s father, who lived with Neel and the children on and off during the 1950s in Spanish Harlem.

In portraying these events, Hoban demonstrates a deep knowledge of the relevant source material, quoting extensively from interviews, diaries, books, articles, and newspaper clippings to help move the story along. Although this tendency to quote rather than narrate is impressive from the standpoint of research, it makes for a somewhat flat and laborious presentation. There are, however, instances in which Hoban’s document-centered technique proves remarkably effective, especially in chapters dealing with Neel’s role as a mother. Here, Hoban provides lengthy excerpts from unpublished diaries of Neel’s friend, Philip Bonosky, who attempted to save Neel and the children from an ogre-like boyfriend, only to discover that Neel actively perpetuated the relationship.

“Only then did I realize the profound corruption of this woman whose round smiling face hides so much that is deadly,’’ the diary states. “Now I understood the depths of what it is that keeps him to her, and her to him.’’

This melodramatic assessment is then played off against Hoban’s interviews with Neel’s sons, who remember their mother fondly but admit that she was complicit in the household’s dysfunction.

“Alice really liked the Sturm and Drang of it,’’ the younger son remarks. His brother agrees but ascribes matters, forgivingly, to Neel’s need for mental stimulation. “It was at family dinners or something like that,’’ he says. “She would get bored, and then all of a sudden people would be raising their voices and shouting and screaming. You know what she was? She was outrageous. Alice was outrageous.’’

These issues were examined to some extent in the 2008 documentary “Alice Neel,’’ directed by the artist’s grandson, Andrew Neel. But Hoban performs a useful service by presenting this material in greater depth and in book form. She also devotes more attention to Neel’s involvement with Communism, which receives only cursory treatment in the film.

Like many artists of her generation, Neel was drawn to the Communist Party during the Depression, but she maintained the association long after others moved on. Hoban does a good job evoking the embattled mindset of New York’s stubborn far-left intellectuals during the postwar era, largely by quoting Neel’s own words. Yet sometimes a measure of context is needed.

In 1981, Neel told the Daily Worker, “This country is now warlike and a threat to the world. Reagan says the government doesn’t owe anybody anything. In the Soviet Union you get free medical care — everything is free.’’ By this point, the Soviet Union was a wheezing, tyrannical giant, teetering on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, Neel had grown prosperous selling paintings on New York’s very capitalist art market and even appeared as a guest, to her great merriment, on “The Tonight Show’’ with Johnny Carson.

As her son correctly observed, “Alice was outrageous.’’

Jonathan Lopez, editor-at-large of Art & Antiques, can be reached at contact@jonathanlopez.net.

ALICE NEEL: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty
By Phoebe Hoban
St. Martin’s, 512 pp., illustrated, $35