Unflinching Truths

Alice Neel was not the sort of artist people turned to for vanity portraits, because her paintings revealed much more than her subjects likely wanted. The expressive strokes and often lurid flesh of Neel's mature work make you wonder if she dipped her brush into her subject's psyche and smeared it onto the canvas for all to see. Sixty-eight paintings by the artist are on view in "Alice Neel: Painted Truths" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, organized by Jeremy Lewison, independent curator and advisor to the Neel estate, and Barry Walker, MFAH Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and Prints and Drawings.

Houston has had a run of great portrait shows of late, from Marlene ­Dumas at the Menil to Barkley Hendricks at the CAMH. Neel, the grand dame of 20th-century portraiture, has influenced generations of artists, including Dumas, who wrote an essay for the catalogue.

The artist was born in 1900 and died in 1984. She painted portraits for most of the 20th century, determinedly and unfashionably continuing to do so through the ebb and flow of artistic movements. Through the eras of abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism, Neel stayed her course.

"Painted Truths" is a really lovely, well-­organized exhibition. Eschewing the traditional timeline approach, the curators grouped work under headings like "Parents and Children," "Allegory," "Nudes" and "Old Age." The groupings, which mix early and late work, give a rich sense of the artist's concerns as well as the evolution of her paintings.

Maternity and motherhood were an important part of the work Neel made. But, like what Dumas did after her, there is nothing saccharine or idealized in the work. Instead, there is frankness and compassion. Neel had four children. Her first child was a girl who died from diphtheria as an infant, while her second daughter was taken away to Cuba as a toddler by her father. Neel survived a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt after those losses and went on to have two sons by different fathers. A woman who went through the things Neel went through wouldn't trivialize the experience of motherhood with cheap sentiment.

Neel always worked from life, ­completing a painting over multiple sittings with the subject. A 1967 painting of her ­daughter-in-law Nancy shows the young woman fiercely clutching her three-month-old baby, Olivia. She looks slightly startled and overwhelmed. The surroundings are minimal — the anxious facial expression and the protective arrangement of Nancy's limbs are the focus of the painting. Space, figure and color are skewed to better convey the emotional content of the image. In a nod to her early work, which often incorporated symbolic images, a very womb-like vase rests on a wonky table in a corner of the room.

Neel made paintings that were shocking at the time, and publications are still hesitant to fully reproduce them. Her 1933 portrait of a scruffy Greenwich Village character/homeless guy named Joe Gould presents the unremitting, unsuccessful lothario naked — and with multiple penises. He smiles goofily at the viewer. The painting was yanked from a 1934 exhibition on grounds of obscenity.

Her 1972 painting of artist, poet, curator and art critic John Perreault presents him in full frontal glory, reclining on a sheet-draped couch, in the traditional manner of the female nude. The hairy, decidedly male figure is far more detailed than many of her paintings; the five-foot-long work was completed over 17 sessions as opposed to the usual three-to-five sittings. One leg propped up, he calmly confronts the viewer.

No doubt I slept through something in art history, but the only pre-1970s artistic precedent I can think of for this supine, sexually displayed male nude is homoerotic Greek sculpture like the "Sleeping Satyr" from 220 B.C. An image of the painting appeared in the society pages of The New York Times, with, as Perreault described it in a 2000 article for NY Arts, the crotch "artfully blocked by the silhouette of one of Neel's sons."

The Perreault painting is an iconic work, and the "Psychological Portraits" section contains other such memorable images. Neel's 1970 portrait of Andy Warhol is here. He sits aloof, his eyes closed, his head turned away. The scars from his Valerie Solanas-­inflicted gunshot wound crisscross his torso, a fold of thin skin flaps over his truss, and he's got saggy man-boobs. Neel sliced away the ­facade of hipness from her subject, depicting a man who is aging and who seems profoundly isolated. (Side note: Warhol is on the list of dead famous people being retroactively diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.)

A slight blue aura surrounds Warhol's torso, but the rest of the work is raw canvas, only a simple line drawing delineating the couch Warhol sits on. Neel knew when to stop painting.

But if she unflinchingly scrutinized other people, it is testament to Neel's character that she was no easier on herself. Her famous self-portrait is included in the "Old Age" section. In it, she's 80 and naked. Flesh that endured four pregnancies and eight decades spills over itself and spreads out over a blue-and-white-striped chair. Greenish and purplish shadows define the folds of her skin. Like centuries of artists before her, she holds a brush in her hand as she looks into a mirror, scrutinizing her own image. But unlike the vast majority of those artists, she offers a frank and unflattering assessment of herself — no grandeur, no drama. She would die four years later.

Alice Neel doggedly produced her work in the almost complete absence of outside recognition, support or encouragement. With the feminist movement in the late '60s, people finally began paying attention to her. Real recognition came to Neel at the age of 74 with a 1974 solo show at the Whitney.

This female artist had the kind of messy personal life that no one bats an eye at in the case of male artists. With similar hypocrisy, questions have been raised about her parenting. (How many male artists abandoned or ignored families?) She made sacrifices for her work and struggled to raise two sons on her own in bohemian poverty, but poverty nonetheless.

Neel's grandson Andrew Neel made a 2007 film about her, interviewing, among others, his father Hartley and uncle Richard. I haven't seen the film, but from reviews, it presents a less-than-idyllic picture of Andrew and his brother's childhood. Hartley Neel spoke briefly at the MFAH press preview, talking about his mother's dedication to her work. But when asked if that was difficult for her children, he answered quietly, "She loved us very much."

Looking at the work around you, all those people she sat with, talked with and ­recorded on canvas, you know that to be true. You can't make paintings like these without love and empathy.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer