Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, St. Martin’s Press, 512 pp., $35
One sympathizes with Phoebe Hoban as you reach the midpoint of Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, Hoban’s thorough examination of a very manipulative painterly genius as Alice reaches her mid-30s in the mid-1930s and negotiates relationships with Kenneth Doolittle, John Rothschild and José Negrón. Take it away, Alice, "You know what the problem was? I was too good-looking. Too many men pursued me. I had this red golden hair. I was clever, I liked people and I liked being the life of the party."
She also liked playing weak, passive-aggressive men off of each other and judging them mercilessly in retrospect, torturing Hoban into figuring out "ex post facto" what the hell was going on and frequently falling into lazily speculating what Neel "must" or "should" have felt about a particular incident. The men are so unimpressive, that one longs for more discussion of Neel’s social realist paintings of the period, which shimmer with the very humanity and compassion she failed to demonstrate in her real life.
Doolittle did destroy more than 300 of her drawings, watercolors and paintings in a jealous rage, but Neel still continued to see him for awhile, and Hoban establishes through interviews with his children that he was not the stone cold junkie Neel judged him to be in retrospect, and may have even been a bit of a feminist.
Rothschild, a Harvard man and a dandy, though not one of the banker Rothschilds, supported Neel, forever, and enjoyed her favors, although Neel condemns him as a lover who prefers his clothes and the Harvard Club to her, in Neel’s jaundiced view. He is the subject of one of her most lurid and amusing paintings, Bathroom Scene (1935), in which the two naked lovers attend to penis, hair and other body parts after coitus. What Hoban rightly characterizes as the "sarcastic" side of Neel’s work is worthy of Thomas Rowlandson or Ralph Steadman.
In the midst of these affairs, Neel falls for a Puerto Rican guitarist, José Negrón, depicted by Neel as "having the hips of a matador," as well as lazily lying around all day. In her attitude toward men, Neel is very much the zoologist, a cold observer, an active lover (although Hoban never offers any particulars on this score) and an engaged sufferer of the consequences, which, in the case of Negron, include an abortion, the birth of a son, Richard, with a sight deficiency and Negron’s immediately leaving her for a saleswoman from Lord & Taylor.
Whether to fill up space or to contextualize Neel’s life for clueless readers on other planets, Hoban launches, as is her want, into a long discussion of the history of syphilis and the question of whether Negron’s syphilis or a Vitamin A deficiency caused their son’s vision problems. Phoebe eventually rules in favor of Vitamin A, by which time boredom sets in. The gorgeous color reproductions of Neel’s haunting Spanish Harlem paintings rekindle one’s interest. These shall be the subject of part 5, as we, dear, reader, continue to Neel down.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).