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Alice Neel and Portraiture's Alternative Face

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Alice Neel was born in January 1900 and lived for much of the 20th century.

For the first 30 years of her adult career, she painted angst-ridden, radically distorted works: "Degenerate Madonna" shows a carnal woman with serpent breasts surrounded by the ghosts of her aborted babies.

For the next 30 years, right up to her death in 1984, Neel painted mild-mannered portraits with a vaguely modern slant -- the kind of thing favored by sitters who know enough to like Matisse but want a dose of old-fashioned realism, too.

The strange thing is, it's the tame-looking later works that have real weight and that have mattered in the long run.

An important new show called "Alice Neel's Women" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts has assembled almost 70 of Neel's female portraits. The show's focus on women isn't just a nod to this museum's mandate. It gets at what makes Neel's art important and at why it's her later art that matters most.

Many of Neel's early pictures are of and about women. (It's hard to get a full sense of this period because a pile of her work was destroyed in 1934 by an enraged boyfriend.) They use the new techniques of radical modernism -- the charged color and line of expressionism, cubist dismemberings, surrealist distortion -- to do a powerful job of revealing the world women faced when Neel was young.

A 1927 watercolor uses a childlike style and comic-strip format to show the tedium of Babbittish American domestic life. Growing up amid bourgeois restraint on Philadelphia's Main Line, Neel knew this well.

That carnal Madonna, painted in 1930, reveals the perils encountered by any woman who dared unleash her sexuality. Neel, who had just joined New York's bohemia, is said to have admired her sitter's liberated ways, but you'd never know it from the picture's angstful forms and tones.

A picture of a woman who has just given birth, painted in 1939, makes her look as if she's just been through Picasso's misogynist meat grinder -- except Picasso used cheery colors when he pulled apart his lovers' bodies, whereas Neel's new mom is all grim browns and blood-clot red. Even Neel's "straight" nudes from this period hint that living inside a woman's unruly flesh must not be a lot of fun.

These early pictures do their job, but there are also problems with them.

Neel's style is interesting, even idiosyncratic, but it's built on other people's innovations. If influential originality was what she was after, she must have known these first paintings weren't going to get her there.

Much more important, by painting women in the styles of an esoteric modern avant-garde, she was committing her sitters and their experience to a marginal position. By claiming the difficulties of female life as a subject for the vanguard, she was also keeping it on the sidelines -- just where it had always been consigned by mainstream artistic culture.

That's why Neel's shift to a mainstream portrait style, around 1960, was such a good move. It let her give women -- even the very most radical of them -- the same treatment that big-shot men had always gotten.

You can find something close to Neel's late manner in almost any suite of portraits of political or academic bosses from the past 50 years or so. At least a few such sitters have always favored a more "modern" portrait style -- with a patch of blank canvas here, some wild brushwork there, even the occasional touch of unnatural color or distorted form. What you won't get in any such assembly, in the normal course of things, is much chance that a good number of those sitters will be women.

In the portrait gallery of Neel's art, all that changes. The "establishment" that's set up in her work includes figures such as Adrienne Rich, the great American poet, feminist and lesbian activist, as well as a Haitian cleaning woman posed with her retarded female child. Mary Garrard, the Washington art historian and pioneer of feminist art history, is in it, too, as is artist Faith Ringgold, whose work is about both blackness and womanhood, alongside a slew of female curators and thinkers who helped advance the cause of women in art and of women in the world.

All these "marginal" figures get treated to the same elite format, brushwork and color that you'd see in any "advanced" society portrait of the same era.

A few of Neel's paintings deliberately highlight the gap between well-mannered style and radical subject. In a famous self-portrait from 1980, the elderly artist posed herself on an elegant, bourgeois armchair striped in blue and white -- after removing all her clothes. Society portraits that feature chairs like this are not supposed to also show an active old woman, paintbrush in hand, sitting in them nude, all sagging breasts and flabby stomach. But Neel insists they should.

Even more interesting, however, than the pictures that make a point of contrasting subject and style are those that don't. In Neel's portrait of Ringgold, the contrast is only hinted at: She's in that same sedate blue-and-white chair -- it's one of Neel's favorite studio props, rather than a real feature of her sitters' own environments -- but her way-out ethnic clothes tell you that she is used to sitting in less staid surroundings. Ditto for Garrard, who's shown in that establishment chair, too, but in a winter coat and hat and scarf, as though she's allowed to perch there for only a moment. The radical black artist, the pioneering feminist historian of art, are shown occupying space -- domestic, artistic, social -- that was designed for other kinds of people. Their portraits subvert the "natural" order of things, normally upheld by pictures painted the way Neel's are.

The subversion is even more profound in pictures where there's no visible contrast at all. In "Adrienne Rich," a drawing from 1973, the poet and radical could be almost any middle-class New Yorker. In a 1972 canvas, a woman named June Blum looks like a trendy suburbanite who has paid to have her excellent big hair immortalized: You'd never guess she was the curator whom feminists dubbed "Wonderwoman" for her heroic support of women's art. Neel has taken "normal" portraiture and made it a venue for powerful women usually cast, in one way or another, as abnormal.

In the second half of her career, Neel gives up on going head-to-head against the ego-baring styles of male artists, each of whose chest-thumping innovations showed that he was better than the guy who came before. Instead, she decides that what matters more, by far, than her own style are the female subjects of her portrait art.

In fact, it's almost as though Neel's style is so comfortably received -- she was on Johnny Carson, twice -- that it's barely a style at all. She turns it into a kind of neutral medium for cataloguing a segment of society she cares deeply about and that she wants to hold up to us as just another normal part of life. Though that normalcy is only a tendentious pose. Neel's portraits don't show her female sitters as they "really are," expressing their "inner selves." If that were the case, we'd know, just by looking at the works, that Rich, Garrard and Blum were used to battling a man's world that's been unfair to them and theirs. Instead, Neel's portraits show her female sitters as they ought to be: accepted leaders in a society that gives them the same weight it gives to men, and paints them the same way.

Her portraits of women are built around a radical premise: that they don't need a room of their own; that they ought to hang on boardroom walls, in the company of men.

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