Painter Alice Neel Strips Her Subjects to the Bone—and Some Then Rage in Their Nakedness
Perhaps that is why Neel, 79, retains most of her own work. "I never take any real virtues away from my subjects," she claims. "I just show them scarred by life as we all are." Even fully clothed, her models seem naked in their despair. Ladew was so squeamish about her portrait that Neel painted red panties on it. "When she returned the portrait I took them off," reports the artist.
The new fracas erupted this winter when Neel donated the work to a benefit. Ladew's attorney quickly had her name removed from further advertising, and the portrait fetched $7,750. "Alice won't tell me who bought it," sighs Ladew. "It could end up as a poster at a gynecologists' convention."
Such attention has been long in coming for Neel despite her more than 50 years as an artist. Labeled by most critics as an expressionist, Neel refused to fall into line behind the voguish abstract expressionists. ("I prefer people to clothespins.") A breakthrough came with a 1974 show at the Whitney Museum. Three years later Art News called Neel "the finest portraitist America has produced since 1900." Today she commands $15,000 to $25,000 per painting. But Neel, who has a poster of Lenin tacked on her crumbling kitchen wall, remains very much a woman of the people. "I was never commercial," she declares. "Freedom was my main purpose."
Neel's benign face, highlighted by satin blue eyes, is in sharp contrast to her searing portraits. A 1970 study of pop art superstar Andy Warhol, for example, shows him bare-chested, with a surgical corset around his waist and a body crisscrossed with scars from the operation that followed his near-fatal shooting.
Neel's eight-room apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side is filled with canvases, jars of paintbrushes, dusty books and chairs from various periods. It houses many portraits of celebrities as well as of street people and gays she knows in the area. The collection would depress most people, but not Neel. "They say I exaggerate," she observes. "But there's an awful lot of dullness in this world."
The daughter of a railroad clerk, Alice escaped the Philadelphia suburbs by marrying a wealthy Cuban in 1925. But after bearing two daughters (one of whom died of diphtheria) the""" marriage crashed along with the stock market. Alice suffered a severe nervous breakdown and spent the next year in a sanatorium near her parents' home. "The person who really helped me," she says, "was a deaf woman psychiatrist who counseled, 'You have to get over the habit of worrying.' "
She returned to New York cured—and a free spirit—and took on an array of lovers. In the '30s she got by as a $26.88-a-week WPA project artist, with some help from male friends. Her two sons were fathered by men she never married. (She hasn't heard from her daughter in two decades.) "I was always a feminist," she says, "but I was devoted to my boys." Enormously proud of 39-year-old Richard, a corporation lawyer, and 37-year-old Hartley, a Vermont physician, she prominently displays their portraits—her more tender works—as well as those of their wives and her six grandchildren.
"Isn't it great?" crows Neel. "I'm as old as the century. I used to live in despair, but now I say to hell with the world." Then wielding her paintbrush, she adds, "I live for this little thing in my hand."