Alice Neel's "Men in Suits," and photographs by August Sander, Mar. 4-Apr. 25, 1998, Cheim & Read, 521 West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Here's my favorite dirty joke, a rather nice one:
Woman puts an ad in the personals: "I want a good lover who won't push me around and won't run out on me." One day she answers the doorbell, and there is an armless, legless man. He says, "I'm here about the ad." She says, "I don't understand." He says, "Look at me. Got no arms, can't push you around. Got no legs, can't run out on you." She says, "But I asked for a good lover." And he says,
"Rang the doorbell, didn't I?"
Alice Neel's portraits in this very clever show, which unites paintings by her of besuited men dated 1957 to 1979 with August Sander's photographs of the same from Germany between 1925 and 1938, reminded me of the joke. Neel, who died in 1984 at the age of 84, might not have objected. She was a major bohemian, earthy and outspoken, who relished Eros and human frailty. While exalting the life force in everyone, Neel's tough-loving art dissembles no congenital blemish, mark of misfortune, or weakness of character. Most to the point, she had an evident thing about men's arms and legs -- women's too, but with less intensity.
Neel gave mass and dignity to men's bodies and faces, even in the bourgeois mufti that never ceased to rankle and amuse her, but something peculiar -- which might be seen as provision against possible threat and undue mobility -- happens to their hands and feet. The hands are almost always distended and brittle-looking. The feet are often attenuated and hardly functional. Neel's guys are ill-equipped to push anybody around, and if they ran out, it would be with a hobbling gait.
An authentic 20th-century heroine, Neel contended in her gypsyish life with more than a few aggressive and bolting men, all infected with unconscious condescension by the old male privilege. (The Abrams book Alice Neel, edited by Patricia Hills, relates the artist's story in her own funny, unsettling, rich words.) Neel suffered with, and also from, male comrades on Communist-led activist and Social Realist artistic scenes in the 1920s and '30s. Her choice of the then presumptively minor genre of portraiture may have had an element of propitiation. It developed an element of counterattack. What would the men around her have said if told back then that, eclipsing them all, she would emerge as the premier artist of their world and time?
Neel's style, which used to trigger the epithet "eccentric," looks ever more classic now, a joltingly efficient application of Expressionism -- with important lessons from Edvard Munch and Chaim Soutine -- to hard human facts. There is absolutely nothing mannered about it. It conveys sheer truth, though of an inextricably tangled kind: truth about the subject, truth about the artist. Every picture tells what it's like to be Alice Neel while making room in that existential condition for another, explosively living soul. The result is poor etiquette and great art.
Neel didn't have a refined sense of personal boundaries, you might say, but she respected her subjects more profoundly than most of them probably knew. (People regularly got upset with her renderings of them.) She pushed and pulled at them both formally and emotionally, with rapt fascination and distancing comedy. The dynamic is not unlike the jousting aspect of some of Picasso's portraits -- if one can imagine Picasso taking time out from being a creep and actually caring about folks. Neel's vision is rude but not crude. Time and again, it is as itchy and pressured as any real relationship.
I surmise that the 13 paintings here depict none of Neel's lovers, who scarcely would have appeared before her in coat and tie. The subjects are men of this or that respectable sphere: business, institution, profession. Their besuitedness is sometimes poignant, as in the strainingly extroverted getup of The Fuller Brush Man, a Holocaust survivor whom Neel befriended. Elsewhere, the suit is brazen armor: Moneyman Timothy Collins, wearing power blue in a chic Lucite chair in 1971, comes off like the prize ape in a capitalist zoo. (Neel doesn't hate him, though; she savors his weird energy.) Then there's Richard.
Neel wanted her sons Richard and Hartley to be a classical pianist and a ballet dancer. By way of demonstrating what is sharper than a serpent's tooth, they became a lawyer and a doctor. In 1979, she painted Richard in the Era of the Corporation. Posing tensely in a cold white atmosphere, he is seen both head-on and, via a mirror, in profile. She scrutinizes him like some beautiful and alarming thing. Separation from her sons must have grieved her, but to leave off passionately loving them would not have occurred to her.
To pass from Neel's ardent paintings to a wall of 27 taciturn Sander photographs is less jarring than one might expect. The contrast disquiets, but in a way that's surprisingly subtle. One is reminded of a common inclination of left-leaning representational artists between the world wars to objectify signs of social standing. The bias is very broad in Neel, for whom the mere fact of a necktie radiates alienation. It is exceedingly, surgically edged in Sander's Young Businessman, Confidential Clerk, Herbal Doctor, et al. But suits are suits: uniforms forfending intimacy.
I deem Sander a great artist and dislike him. In common with most of the Weimar left, he advanced extremist views of society that helped to scare ordinary citizens toward Hitler. (The worst was John Heartfield, with his Moscow-line conflation of Nazis and capitalists when some capitalist swing votes might have saved the day.) Sander's people seem to me suspended, as by the scruffs of their necks, from the pegs of their vocational designations. The effect makes for terrifically potent photography, but with a sour moral aftertaste.
Sander poeticized modern, especially German, bureaucracy's mania for identification -- pinning down units of elusive humanity in demographic crosshairs. There is something voyeuristic about his work whenever humanity proves irrepressible, as if we glimpsed someone naked through a window in an edifice. Three pictures here from 1938 show "Persecuted Jews." Impeccably dressed, somewhat careworn-looking businessmen gaze out at us. Neither they nor Sander could know what we know of their fates, but enough was known, one may think, to have taken the fun out of the photographer's fastidiously pigeon-holing project.
In Alice Neel's eyes, men in suits were persons taken hostage by depersonalizing power. But they were persons first, last and still. Hearts pumped beneath the serge. She felt it. Men: you can't live with them, you can't live without them. So Neel's art can seem to say while solving the problem with every stroke in every painted dance of attraction and repulsion: live with and without them, both.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.