Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, St. Martin’s Press, 512 pp., $35
I continue to wrestle with the writing of the remarkable Phoebe Hoban as she grapples with her formidable, unreliable and not very likeable subject Alice Neel in "Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty" (St. Martin’s Press).
Neel met her husband, the painter Carlos Enriquez, during a brief residency at the Chester Springs Country School in Yellow Springs, Pa. His love letters are besotted with Neel, imagining her as a lost princess in the woods, "the sea empty and the skies without stars, before I stop loving you." They paint together copiously, Carlos the son of a wealthy doctor in Havana, Neel a woman of tremendous outward charm and a seething inability within to reconcile herself with others.
She takes money coldly from another suitor, marries Carlos, immediately regrets it, then moves to his family’s mansion in Cuba. Here, Alice comes as close to integration, in 1927, as at any time before her nervous breakdown in 1931. Her painting is exhibited, praised, noticed frequently in the press. She is described by a Cuban reporter as liking to redraw her work after looking at it through her legs upside down.
Yet, soon, after the birth of her daughter, Santillana, Neel flees with the girl to New York, for reasons Hoban observes "are never fully explained," soon to be joined by her husband in an Upper West Side flat. Hoban rather extensively sketches the bohemian environment of Roaring 20s New York, mentioning everyone from Lindbergh to de Kooning, before meeting her subject once again in the ring.
The reasons for Neel’s poverty are a multiple puzzlement: the aristocratic husband can’t really work, although he does illustrations for magazines; his Cuban relatives send money, but never enough; Alice goes to work at the Art Deco boutique of her friend, the writer Fanya Foss, yet she is jealous of her benefactor soon enough, and then works at a bank. Through it all Neel observes that she cannot even afford a quart of milk, yet she rather courageously paints it all. The sense is that integrated reality for Alice only exists on canvas.
Bravely Hoban rallies in defense of her subject. The good will of Enriquez, if real, goes unmentioned, while Neel’s feelings are imagined and relished by the author. We are adrift in the luffing latitudes of long dead emotions, coming to an abrupt end in the death of daughter Santillana from diptheria, Neel’s immediately getting pregnant, the birth of her daughter Isabetta and the latter’s mysterious resettlement with Enriquez’ family in Cuba.
Hoban mightily attempts to sort out subsequent, conflicting and often unreliable explanations for these disasters (there is a poignant telling of Alice’s desperate hauling of the doomed Santillana to the Neel famly for fruitless salvation), but what Hoban demonstrates is that Neel was unafraid to render it all in paint, the pain of the birthing room, the dead daughter adrift in a room which Phoebe rightly compares to Matisse’s The Piano Lesson, a grotesque and hateful depiction of Neel’s benefactor Fanya Foss with naked breasts drooping forward.
This culminates in Neel’s nervous breakdown, whose details, including the swallowing of broken glass, would give even Sylvia Plath pause. Hoban tries to explain Neel’s collapse in the context of the vogue for Freud at the time (to wit, hysteria), as if Alice’s very knowledge of this new inverted way of examining existence provided the context for her collapse, and, who knows, it might be true.
What is true is Phoebe Hoban’s saintlike devotion to her unappetizing if unjustifiably tormented subject, Alice Neel, which I shall pursue as I continue to review her protean biography.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).