ALICE'S TEA PARTY
As Phoebe Hoban reaches the midway point in her exhaustive biography Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, her style relaxes, her conflicts with Neel recede and the narrative takes on a life of its own. For one thing Hoban has a collaborator, Neel's protector and Platonic lover, Philip Bonosky, a writer whose 30-year journal about Neel's surreal household Hoban quotes from extensively and whose crystal clear prose is a salve to Phoebe's desire to cram every fact into her book.
A settled Hoban, who comes from a prolifically creative family full of its own, benign eccentricities, is a happier Hoban, even as Neel's life turns into a carnival of survival. Alice lived on welfare, paid $38 a month in rent, shoplifted, watched passively as one lover, Sam Brody, brutalized her nearly blind son Richard, took handouts from him and from John Rothschild, leaning on Hartley, her son with Brody, and the aforementioned Bonosky, for a vein of sanity.
In her late 40s, grown plump, her allure was nevertheless undiminished, and she painted and painted some more. Curiously, Bonosky calls these works "monsters," indicating how jarring they looked at the time, although their searing realism now shines through. Neel's palette was truly darkness visible.
The Spanish Family (1943) is a wonder of settled fear and resigned shyness in the eyes of a mother, related to Neel's lover Josť Negrůn, and her adorable children. This combination of innocent beauty and curious wonder resonates also in Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959), telling us that Alice's active empathy for every one of her subjects was a kind of shared sibling to the aggressive passivity of her home life: chaos in life, order in her work.
Hoban extensively brings out a kaleidoscope of varying impressions of Neel's household from survivors like Sam Brody's son, the well-known Brooklyn artist David Brody. I thought of a quote from the novelist Ford Maddox Ford, "Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering olive leaves, people can be with whom they like and take their ease in shadows and coolness?"
Nothing of the sort greeted Alice Neel in the first five decades of her life and little of that soft, relaxed feeling comes from Phoebe Hoban's recounting of them. It is all a struggle. Yet, paradise beckons, from a surprising place, one that often neglects its own until their later years (even today): the New York art world, the subject of the final installment of my own struggle with Hoban's book.
Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, St. Martinís Press, 512 pp., $35
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).