Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, St. Martin’s Press, 512 pp., $35
From the time she moved to Greenwich Village in 1931, Alice Neel became a committed, indeed, a lifelong Communist, pretty much enamored of the USSR and the party line, a cold stance which paradoxically stabilized her for the first time in her life and allowed her to project a deep, sexual warmth to the bohemians around her.
Continuing my exegesis of Phoebe Hoban's thorough treatment of Neel in Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (St. Martin's Press), I find myself repulsed by the narrowness and naiveté of her political stance and enchanted by the exceptional paintings she did of her political friends during this period. Hoban's tour of the left world of the Depression is irritatingly completist, drawing heavily from previous volumes by Ross Wetzsteon and others: she assumes little knowledge on the part of the sophisticated reader who will be naturally drawn to this book.
Yet, her telling does have a few interesting lacunae, such as the fact that Neel's comrade, the Stalinist journalist Mike Gold, brutally attacked any writer, from Philip Rahv to Max Lerner to Meyer Schapiro, who dared, in Gold's eyes, to challenge Moscow. Conversely, we are introduced to the wonderful and forgotten painter Joe Solman (father of Paul Solman, the economics correspondent for PBS, by the way) who acts as a kind of Diogenes in finding opportunities for Neel during her stay on Cornelia Street.
Alice had a magic hand which plucked chances out of the ruins of her previous lives: during the Depression, she ended up in the first Washington Square exhibition, was discovered by Whitney Museum curator Juliana Force and recruited by the legendary easel project of the WPA. It was her talent that enabled her, of course. Then there was this from another friend, Herman Rose: "She went for me. I think she had a crush on me. I wouldn't say she was pretty; she was beautiful. She threw herself around. . . her painting was very bold and very beautiful just like her character really.
This ability to navigate boundaries experimentally, permitting and withdrawing, resketching one's personality across the borderline of stability is the essence of Neel throughout her life, one which Hoban mercifully allows to burst through the curtain of "the life and times" that Hoban so effortfully stitches. It is the irrational lid to the deep rationalism of Neel's eye and hand, so strikingly evident in her excellent realist paintings of the 1930s.
Her portrait of the poet Kenneth Fearing is razzmatazz of cafe life, with a shock of pink blood emerging from his shirt to feed the proletariat.
The earnestness of Neel's picture of the organizer Pat Whalen gives him the gravitas of Thomas More or George Orwell, the strong hands and noble gaze emerging from a seaweed green, one of many reminders that Neel is a shaman of color, always choosing right and always surprising us, nevertheless.
Compared to strong, subtle portraits such as these, Neel's most famous picture of the period, her raffish, satanic portrait of the solipsistic raconteur Joe Gould, featuring the famous "three penises", has a slapdash, juvenile quality, looking backwards. Of course, all these portraits are of men, and as Hoban warns us, "if Neel had a tragic flaw, it was her judgment when it came to men," the subject of Part 4 of this continuing review.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).