To stand in a gallery filled with portraits by Alice Neel is an unsettling, if rewarding, experience. The effect is somewhat akin to the queasiness a person might feel during a ghostly appearance at his own funeral: Things seem distant and uneasily askew, but recognizable and unhappily right. Neel is a painter of individuals, she limns their excesses and anxieties, but the collective effect is stronger still. Not a flattering picture nor a thorough one, it nonetheless tells a lot about the way we looked and felt in this place and time, the ways we somehow managed to get through.
Neel is a rare combination: a formidable caricaturist who also is a very good painter. To catch her sitters she employs a formula of anatomical exaggerations, and yet it is remarkable that the formula is not, by and large, fatigued by repetition, a mark of her skill as a painter and even more of her penetrating eye. Clearly she does not show people the way they would like to be seen, but it is hard to imagine any of her sitters, even those daring enough to commission a portrait, complaining that she had not told them something important (however unlovely) about themselves.
Neel, 81, has become famous in her late years to the point that she often seems to have appeared on the scene without antecedents -- sui generis the expressionist portraitist of the 1960s and 1970s. The National Academy of Sciences show of 22 paintings is not a retrospective, but it does include a few works that indicate historical allegiances. "The Great Society" (1965) has the punch (if not the style) of a George Grosz, and "Anxiety" (1967), showing a scared and very young child squeezed into a chair, is a freshly conceived tribute to Edvard Munch. Her art is her own, however, and her fame entirely deserved.
Also on view at the Academy, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW, are intense investigations of perspective systems by Paul Flood -- "Grid for Plotting Everything in Every Direction" is the subject of one work -- and Agam-derived constructions by Lois Swirnoff. All shows through Jan. 28.
The big surprise in the Sidney Guberman exhibition at the Barbara Fiedler Gallery, 1621 21st St. NW, is a series of small-scale steel sculptures, dashingly formed and painted. But to get the sculptures requires a close initial look at the paintings, which are, least to say, full of incident. It would not be unfair to describe them tersely as a union of Frank Stella's messy exuberance and Henri Matisse's sensuous control -- a difficult union.
The overall aim is pleasure, but of a complex sort. The paintings consist of a series of mostly irregular shapes that reappear in unlikely places and combinations. In effect, each of them is an extremely complicated set of paintings-within-the-painting. The extreme variations in color, motif and shape make for a pleasing sort of cacophony: The units tend to break up in front of your eyes, and then to reassemble themselves somehow. There is danger in this precarious balance because sometimes the reunion of the parts is tumultuous and only momentary. But when it works, as in the large painting, "Gail's Estate," the result is, as intended, an exhilarating defense of abstract painting, late decorative phase.
The sculptures spring to life from these paintings in the most delightful way, as if the various shapes had accepted the artist's invitation to a dance and simply stepped upon the floor -- the fat column motif takes a twirl with the teardrop shape and then gives the grand piano form a try. The choreography is elegantly controlled, however. Basically sets of interlocking planes, the sculptures are literally made up of a series of distinct, exotically beautiful paintings, a procedure for which I can think of no precise precedent. Through Dec. 18.
It may be stretching the point to say so, but Michael Fedorov's paintings, on view in a group show at the Olshonksy Gallery, are symptomatic of this time of diffusion, not to say confusion, among young painters looking for artistic legs on which to stand. Fedorov's paintings tell quixotic stories in which horses get the main roles, literally and metaphorically. Fedorov's treatment of them -- huge beasts full of muscular vitality and painted in brilliant colors -- calls to mind an art historical odd couple to beat them all: the mighty steeds of Paolo Uccello, the 15th-century Florentine, and the gentle ones of Franz Marc, the 20th-century German.
And then, in Fedorov's mural-size allegory, "King Tufor," depicting a carnival of killing in the presence of serene Orthodox icons, the couple becomes a me'nage a trois when the fiery ghost of Jose Clemente Orozco, the Mexican muralist, enters the fray. Fedorov is 28. A painter his age could do a lot worse than to pick three great if wildly disparate painters as models, but it is not at all clear that Fedorov knows what he is doing. Just when his strange horses begin to convince, his saccharine romanticism gets in the way. Recent works by Chris Fendley, Carla Klevan, Nancy Klotz and J. A. Sempliner are also in the show, the second at the Olshonsky Gallery's new location downtown, 443 Seventh St. NW (second floor). Through Dec. 13