(Left) Don Perlis and Jonathan (1982), (Right) Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (1970).
Currently on view at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles (France), Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life, is a traveling retrospective of more than seventy of the artist's works, spanning several decades of her career, and borrowing from institutions around the world. The exhibition resonates with several of van Gogh's works, which are hung several paces from Neel's exhibition.
Neel (1900-1984), a prominent American female artist in the mid-20th century, wanted to break the traditional tenets of portraiture that were ingrained from her early years of schooling. She was self-described as a realist and an expressionist, with a career that evolved extensively from start to finish. Neel glimpsed beyond the facade of her subjects, probing their humanity. She studied average people that she saw on the streets, because she thought their tales constituted genuine accounts of the time period. One of the works hung in van Gogh's adjacent show, The Weeders (1890), testifies to his mutual esteem for hardworking individuals.
To exhibit the sequential mental and artistic periods of Neel's career, the show progresses in reverse chronological order across several rooms and floors of the institution. At the end her painting career (1970-1984), Neel found more peace in her subjects on the canvas and was taking an increasingly moderate look at society through business individuals and celebrity elite of the Upper West Side of New York City. During this period, Neel painted portraits of individuals such as Michel Auder, Jackie Curtis, Andy Warhol, and wealthy families such as the one shown in The Family (1970). The most unifying factor in this series is the stark focus on the subject in the composition that isolates and strands the subject, belittling the bare interior environment. Despite the fact that only a fraction of Neel's figures make eye contact through the canvas, the eyes and facial expressions portrayed are the focal points for their Neel-perceived humanity. In Don Perlis and Jonathan (1982), a father rests solemnly staring out of the frame while his son's hollow, ghostly eyes follow his gaze away from the onlooker.
There is a burdensome impression of desolation behind the boy's eyes and the man's demeanor is subdued and resigned. This period of Neel's paintings manifests her fervent distaste for "homogenized American life", which she felt trapped numerous astute youths in the "rat race" of life at much to young an age (Alice Neel, 2007).
The intermediate segment of the exhibition is a gradual shift from Neel's years of frequenting communist circles, promoting the homosexual minority at the height of its 20th century persecution, and painting for the Works Progress Administration during WWII. One of Neel's iconic portraits from this period is her portrait of Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (1970), professing herself an advocate for homosexuals and condemning sexist norms about clothing and makeup. The portraits from this period were a gradual transition toward her later and lighter period (the first section of the exhibition), which starkly diverged from the works she created for the WPA. During WWII, Neel was hired to document and depict American life, which led to her dark, downtrodden streets of New York City. For Neel, this era encouraged dark landscapes with scattered, downcast figures and heavy atmospheres. Several of the urban portraits of dark buildings contained lit windows with no human figures, but served to personify the cold monoliths instead.
The brief and final fragment of the exhibition reflects Neel's depressed and spiraling nature as a young artist and mother. Her curiosities and disturbed thoughts were manifested in the human figure, particularly pregnant women. Neel painted women as the way she saw herself "defective", often giving them demon or alien-like qualities to leave them less human on the canvas. This projection of self onto the painting is similar to van Gogh's self-portrait in which he has dramatically aged himself. The Fondation Vincent van Gogh exhibits van Gogh and Alice Neel in proximity to one another to illustrate their similarly disturbed self-images, and to show the painterly and figurative reverberations between their practices.
This show is on view until September 17, 2017 and will then head to Deichtorhallen Hamburg in October. All images are courtesy of Ivy Guild.