Art review: Alice Neel at L.A. Louver
Over six decades, Neel (1900-1984) painted her lovers, children and grandchildren, friends, fellow artists and activists, and strangers who intrigued her. Born near Philadelphia, she settled in New York, and was poor and under-recognized for most of her career. Her life was richly textured (she appeared, for instance, in the Robert Frank film, “Pull My Daisy,” with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) but also stained with grief: the death of her first child; estrangement from her second; suicide attempts and a nervous breakdown; a lover who destroyed much of her early work.
You can see in her portraits some of Schiele’s tense angularity, Munch’s brutal honesty, Cassatt’s fascination with the maternal, as well as a hint of Goya’s attraction to the shadowy and grotesque. You can always recognize Neel’s hand, her energy, her nerve. She talked continuously and uninhibitedly through portrait sittings. The power of her work often lies in its paradoxical compression of raw immediacy and sustained encounter.
L.A. Louver’s show of 16 Neel portraits, dating from 1940 to 1978, is a prized opportunity. The last time so many of the artist’s works were on view together in L.A. was over 20 years ago.Jeremy Lewison, an advisor to the Alice Neel estate, helped orchestrate this show, and co-curated the thematic survey of Neel’s work now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In the catalog to the museum exhibition, Lewison aptly describes the portraits as “not so much a record of intimacy as a call to intimacy.” They are invitations to the domains of both sitter and artist, to their psychic and physical shared space.
In this, as in many of Neel’s most striking works, she toggles between sketchy outline and more detailed finish. She leaves patches of canvas bare next to areas more fully rendered. As an analog to identity’s lack of fixity, its perpetual fluidity, this pictorial strategy could not be more potent. It’s also a compelling reminder that every realist painter is also practicing a fundamentally abstract art, organizing shapes and lines, solids and voids, hues and tones across a flat surface. Composition reinforces content and vice versa.
Consider the stunning “Peggy” (c.1949), in which the sitter’s unnaturally lanky arms stretch out and double back, so that her hands (one open, one curled closed) come to rest on either side of her face like fragile but insistent arrows pointing to the cut above one eye, the bruises next to the other.
Neel considered herself a “collector of souls.” In this fine assembly, it is clear how well she honored those she gathered, in all their restlessness, vulnerability and imperfection.
– Leah Ollman
L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through June 26. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.lalouver.com
Images: "Frank Gentile" (top) and "Peggy." Photo credit: Copyright the Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy L.A. Louver.