Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, St. Martin’s Press, 512 pp., $35
The last 150 pages of Phoebe Hoban's Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty are as dull as it gets. As President Kennedy remarked after the Bay of Pigs, "Success has a thousand fathers. Failure is an orphan." From the time she painted Frank O'Hara in 1960 and was glowingly reviewed in Art News, Alice Neel was a success and her frequent reaction was not unlike Sally Field receiving the Oscar, "You like me you really like me!"
When the New York art world (and its outer precincts) falls for you, the wave of conformity is the thunderous splash of 10,000 golden lemmings leaping into the sea. Ever the completist, Hoban lists every one of Neel's shows, all the artists who showed with her, and quotes from every review, although listing every sale would stretch the book beyond reality. As Hoban puts it, Neel charmed everybody "from Michel Auder to Johnny Carson."
The effect is akin to your Aunt Fanny winning the lottery, moving into the Waldorf and ordering ice cream from room service three times a day every day: dull, rich and, for Hoban's readers, not very nutritious. It also has the paradoxical effect of making a longtime Neel fan, who has never been much interested in her as a person, question whether or not she is any good, because, you know, 50,000 Neel fans, in their unanimity, must be wrong.
Her recognizable images of this period are as familiar as the celebrities who tramped through her Broadway apartment to pose for her. If you think about Henry Geldzahler or John Perrault or Linda Nochlin, chances are it's their portrait by Alice that pops into your head. So let's approach Neel's late, renowned work from a contrarian point of view.
Jacqueline Kennedy, when asked to describe her first husband, responded, "When I think of Jack, I think of a very big head on a very tiny body." Similarly, Neel's heads plunge out at you to the point of rolling off, as their bodies foreshorten themselves to almost nothing at the feet. Invariably (with the exception of a smirking Red Grooms in a dual portrait with his wife), the eyes of Neel's subjects bug out from the face and their mouths are dim and passive to the point of depression.
I am sure that Alice blabbed away to every one her subjects to put them at ease, but to a certain extent, the depressed mood she painted was always her own. She was throwing off her misery from the hard past unto the successful subjects in front of her. There is an element of dwarfism within her work, illustrative of her need for domination over her subjects within her own mind. As with Egon Schiele, true playfulness is absent and the mood is pretty much the same from work to work, sepulchral.
Finally there is the matter of color, Neel's airy blues, bright oranges and white absences. You can see a similar palette in David Hockney. Neel's lightness of color distracts you from the heavy expressions of her people, makes them bearable. To live in a cartoon world is barely one-dimensional and Neel's work up until the period of her renown was anything but cartoonish.
I think she sacrificed compassion and spirituality to come the court cartoonist to a bunch of adoring popinjays, but that could just be Phoebe Hoban's heavy book still ringing in my head.CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).