Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, St. Martin’s Press, 512 pp., $35
My dear friend Phoebe Hoban made a Herculean effort to ship me a copy of her comprehensive biography of the painter Alice Neel, called Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (St. Martin’s Press), before its official publication date of Dec. 9, 2010, so I am going to review it today even though I have only read the first 25 pages. Since Ken Johnson of the New York Times has already dubbed Phoebe’s tome "the biography of the year," I have an excuse for my urgency.
Phoebe Hoban, author of Basquiat, has taken on the greatest challenge of a writer: an unreliable subject. I described this dilemna to Phoebe a few moments ago as "Moby Dick chasing Captain Ahab." Neel was a prolific reminiscer in her later years to curious art journalists such as Richard Polsky, akin to Jonathan Winters' character Aunt Blabby, and Phoebe Hoban salts and leavens her copious chronological treatment of Neel with a late-life exegesis from Neel herself.
What Neel tells us, and what Hoban competes against in her desire to turn Neel into a palimpsest for the emergence of independent American women, is that she came from dysfunctional family, in which her mother didn't allow her to pick pears in the mud after a rainstorm, her father was a passive, bullied accountant for the railroad, various claims of descent from a signer of the Declaration of Independence may or may not be true and a heavy-smoking uncle became dean of a college and burned himself to death in bed.
As a result Neel emerges as a comely coquette, working for the future dean of the Yale Art School Theodore Sizer, matriculating at the Phildadelphia College of Art and design, a master of "designo" by the age of 18, marked by her bent egoism on greatness at the easel. The grand and copious illustrations, a tribute to Hoban's (and Neel's) marketabily, demonstrate that Alice Neel's genius was fully formed in the 1920s with a kind of angularity straight out of Picasso’s Man With a Guitar (only simultaneously more nuanced and pictorially edgy) and that her allure only grew, oustripping her ego, until she appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, in 1983, at age 83 (as Neel oft said, being born in 1900, "my story is the story of the century").
It’s gonna take me a century to navigate this dense and intense tussle between Phoebe Hoban and her contentious subject, so this is the first of a few reviews of it, patient reader.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).