Three weeks ago, artist Alice Neel, who is 80 years old, completed a nude self-portrait that now hangs in the Hal Reed Gallery in New York City.
Naked. Soft -- but naked.
"I don't believe any other lady of 80 did a nude self-portrait," she said smiling, holding court yesterday morning in the Washington Women's Arts Center, where she was to jury a show of paintings. Half a dozen eager and intently listening women were seated on the floor before her.
But then Alice Neel has made a career of doing things other people didn't do -- but not just because others didn't do them, she insisted. "That would be cheap," she said soberly. "I know artists who would lie down naked on a floor you could see through. . ."
This is the normal range of Alice Neel's conversation. And the normal range of her portraits over the past 50 years: pregnant women, a TB case in Harlem (1940), naked men -- such as the 1933 portrait of Joe Gould, pictured with multiple genitalia.
She beamed. "A fertility image."
Neel rode the crest of the recent wave of interest in women artists to belated recognition: a White House ceremony honoring her and other nationally known women artists, a major show at New York's Whitney Museum and a position as a leading portraitist. In addition to her notable nudes, there have been notable pictures of people with their clothes on -- Harold Cruz in 1950, Henry Geldzahler in 1967, Andy Warhol, scientist Linus Pauling at Big Sur, pictures of her two sons, Hartley, a doctor, and Richard, a lawyer. Traditional careers: the ironic twist to Alice Neel's lifetime of outrageousness.
"I painted a picture of my daughter-in-law changing her baby's diaper -- the baby is hanging upside down," said Neel. "His penis is like an acorn at the top -- and then it's like a plum. He wasn't even four months old. They loved it in Akron." Giggles.
"Hartley saw it and said, 'Alice, it's not your fault. You're naturally indecent.'"
In the '20s, after art school in Philadelphia, she married a Cuban aristocrat and went off to Havana. After a year of that, she and her husband returned to Greenwich Village, where they lived the life of starving artists. Her first child died of diphtheria. Her husband took her next child away to Cuba, leaving Neel in New York, where she had a nervous breakdown. A year later she recovered, returned to painting, and married a sailor who slashed 60 of her paintings, 300 drawings, and her clothes, with a Turkish knife in a fit of jealous pique over her friendship with another man. She escaped. Then she met Jose, a Puerto Rican singer. . .
Well, it sure beat growing up in that little town of Colwin, Pa., where she was bored to death. (She was born to a Philadelphia Main Line family, she says, and they moved when she was little.) In Colwin, she whiled away the hours playing Parcheesi with a friend.
She had tried a self-portrait two years ago, but was not satisfied. "Then Hal Reed called me up and said he was showing all the artists' self-portraits," she said. With a dead-line facing her, she whipped up a nude portrait. "I posed for one week -- day and night. It was taken to the gallery wet. I must say it's better than the pictures there. Who's that guy I like?"
Someone prompted her.
"Ellsworth Kelly," she said. "His is child's play compared to mine."
She came upon notoriety later than her artist friends Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. All worked together on the Works Progress Administration. "You did that or you starved," she said.
Sometime in the middle of all that, she left the Village. Tired of it. She and Jose moved to Spanish Harlem. More truth there, she once told an interviewer. She now lives in a West Side apartment.
"I'm not trying to shock the world," she said yesterday, eyes quizzical. "I couldn't compete. Look at Rauschenburg. He cuts a hole in a canvas and puts a pipe through it."
She became associated with the Graham Gallery in New York in the '60s and since then has come into her own with showings and lectures around the country. The Hirshhorn Museum has two of her paintings -- one of Sari Dean and the other of Kenneth Doolittle.
"Someone get a Newsweek," commanded Neel, searching for the writeup and photo of her self-portrait in that magazine. "Where's the boss lady?"
Sarah Taylor, director of exhibitions, appeared in the doorway.
"You walk like a man," said Neel. The room burst into laughter. Taylor -- sharply cropped hair, tall and lean in corduroy jeans -- grinned. "It's part of the job."
"No, it's not," admonished Neel softly.
At 80, she has a pacemaker. The face is soft, younger-looking than 80, the eyes warm. Her white hair is visible at the edge of her fur hat. A kind of soft Margaret Mead. A rosy-cheeked grandmother who could have been lifted from a Norman Rockwell portrait of Grandma serving up turkey at Thanksgiving dinner.
The Newsweek photo was passed around -- the colors are soft, pastel-looking. The body, well, sagging. "You see I try to show the flesh dropping off the bones," she explained. "I never could paint my face -- that little Anglo-Saxon face bored me. You see that big toe? And look at that leg -- a frightful triumph of art. It's not pretty. The flesh looks very soft. I could be worse at 80 -- I could have millions of wrinkles. I put that rather large stomach in -- she looked pregnant for a while," she said referring to the portrait. "I don't think it's hideous. I think it's beautiful."
It's priced at $35,000. No one has offered to buy it. "Who would want to buy it?" she shrugged.
Of course, there is that man who has caled her at home in New York four or five times to tell her he thinks oldish women are sensual. "I told him, 'I'm not oldish. I'm old.'"