by Robert Taliaferro
Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010).
There are many ways to be involved in a revolution. Written words defining theory and practice, and mass social protests are two ways. Creating art outside of the norm is another.
Unfortunately, for many years revolutionary ideas in art were often dictated by the male-dominated spectrum that defined a palette of beliefs that colored the vision of those who viewed art. Because of this, we hear very little about women artists and the revolutions they sparked through their creations.
Phoebe Hoban’s 2010 biography of Alice Neel is an exceptional book about the artist’s life, and also an essential reader on the art culture of the U.S. throughout Neel’s life which spanned nearly all of the 20th century.
Up until the late 20th century women artists often had their creativity stifled by the male-driven view that “proper women” should not (and perhaps could not) be artists of substance. It is fortunate that U.S.-born artists like Mary Cassatt were pioneers for change. Even so, the social doctrines of the time were centered on the puritanical concept that Victorian women, even accomplished artists, should be painting things they understood—pretty things like flowers and children.
Neel, born in 1900, was subjected to this banality for much of her early life, and when she decided on art as a career, she was harangued by her grandmother because she was “only a girl.” Hoban writes that this criticism only served to make Neel more ambitious.
Neel was known as an iconoclast, and a friend gave her the nickname “Malice Neel” because of her propensity towards a Bohemian lifestyle. A social realist, her approach to art was not subtle, and Hoban gives a vibrant view of her raw style, extraordinary talent, and humanity in a way that is as honest as was Neel.
Hoban writes of three core strands of Neel’s painter sensibility: her radicalism, her extensive knowledge of vulnerability and breakdown gleaned from her time in a mental hospital early in her career, and the Depression which reinforced her social conscience. Hoban writes, “Her inclusion in the WPA easel program…would forge these separate threads into Neel’s signature style.” Around this time Neel was introduced to Marxism and, in 1935, she joined the Communist Party.
Neel was, Hoban writes, the “de facto artist of the feminist movement” and the first American feminist multicultural artist. She was “[H]ighly conscious of herself as a protagonist in her own drama,” and her canvasses were “a membrane through which the artist experienced the world.” Hoban makes sure that we arrive back to the reason for the book’s existence: Neel, the revolutionary; a human being who, despite her fragility, refused to be considered a victim; a paradigm of the Bohemian, yet a woman with a profound social conscience shared with the world.
The feminist movement embraced Neel in her 60s and 70s for her unconventional paths, even though “Neel’s attitude toward feminism was conflicted and complex.” Her images of women, mothers and children, and her unprecedented depictions of pregnant nudes were considered pivotal aspects of feminist iconography. Although Neel was fascinated by people’s exterior appearance, it was their interior life she sought to reflect. She did this by focusing on individual psychology as it manifested itself in body language and physiognomy.”
At 80 Neel created her final self-portrait. It is beautiful and irreverently all about Neel: Neel maintained that honesty and vision in the last portrait of herself at 80. She is nude in a chair, sagging breasts with a paintbrush in one hand and small rag in the other. Despite her nudity, the roles seemed reversed, and one expects her to rise from her chair, step in front of a canvas, and start painting a picture of the viewer. Hoban writes that this painting was “…one of Neel’s masterworks, breaking genre barriers, inverting the gaze of subject and artist, and radically subverting the female form.”
Hoban’s biography is a compelling and poignant portrait of Neel, and 84 years of the 20th century that not only helped to create Neel as an artist, but showed us an in-depth look at the world in which she lived.