Book review: ‘Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty’ by Phoebe Hoban
The Art of Not Sitting Pretty
St. Martin’s Press: 479 pp., $35
Here comes that old question, the one that pops up when a new biography of a prominent artist or writer is published: Do we judge an artist by the life or the work? Or is it both? Alice Neel is best known for her extraordinary portraits of the people she knew and for her self-portraits. Her life story is a powerful narrative of the 20th century that touches on various dominant themes: the hopeful charisma of the 1920s, the poverty of the 1930s, World War II and its immediate aftermath, the widespread paranoia of the 1950s, the identity questions and feminism of the 1960s.
It was not until the 1970s, however, that Neel became truly famous after being asked to paint a portrait for Time magazine of writer Kate Millett, whose book “Sexual Politics” was then causing a sensation in the media. Suddenly, Neel was a celebrated artist. In 1974, the Whitney held a retrospective of her work: 58 portraits painted over 40 years. Articles and interviews in ARTnews, the Village Voice and the New Yorker followed. “I paint my time using the people as evidence,” explained Neel, who died in 1984.
The 2000 movie “Joe Gould’s Secret,” named after a portrait Neel painted of Gould (it hangs in the Tate), featured Susan Sarandon as Neel. In 2009, a painting of Neel’s sold at Sotheby’s for $1.65 million. “Neel wasn’t so much an intellectual painter as a visceral one,” writes Phoebe Hoban in a fascinating, highly voyeuristic and, at times, vicious biography, “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty.”
According to Hoban’s book, Neel might be called a “wild woman.” In her time, the word “bohemian” was often used to describe unconventional lives, but what is sometimes overlooked is how much the typical “bohemian artist” had to struggle against and for. In Neel’s case, a Victorian disdain for women prevailed in the Pennsylvania household in which she and her four siblings were raised. “You are only a girl,” her grandmother repeatedly told her — and throughout her life, Neel mentioned this as the taproot of her feminism.
Neel’s life is a study of will. From an early age, painting came first. Born in 1900, she was admitted into the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (and paid for it herself) when she was 21. There she met the first love of her life, Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez de Gomez, a wealthy fellow student from Havana. They married, moved to Havana and had a daughter named Santiallana, who died when she was less than a year old of diphtheria. In 1928, the couple had a second daughter, Isabetta, who was taken from Neel and raised by Carlos’ sisters in Cuba after the couple separated. In 1930, Neel, abandoned by her husband and separated from her daughter, attempted suicide several times and was institutionalized.
The painter emerged from her breakdown in 1932 and lived in the West Village during that neighborhood’s Golden Age: Sinclair Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, playwright Moss Hart and the oral historian Gould were among her acquaintances. Neel joined the Communist Party, worked for the magazine Masses and the Mainstream and painted. She lived with a series of men — much detailed by Hoban —particularly singer and guitar player Jose Santiago Negron, who introduced Neel to the people of Spanish Harlem. She spent 24 years in that neighborhood and painted some of her most memorable portraits of working-class people there. Her son Richard was born in 1938, followed by her son Hartley in 1940: Her work was exhibited in the late 1930s alongside the work of members of the New York Group.
Hoban might have spent more time on Neel’s development as a painter had she not been so fascinated with Neel’s qualifications as a mother and her admittedly fascinating love life. Allegations of neglect are horrifying — many thought her children were malnourished, endangered and even physically and sexually abused by members of Neel’s questionable group. Her son Richard remembers being beaten by his mother’s boyfriend, photographer Sam Brody, and Hoban leaves questions hanging about whether Isabetta was sexually abused during a rare visit to her mother when she was 11.
Hoban writes that, after this visit, Isabetta never again agreed to see her mother. When she was 50, Hoban recounts, Isabetta went to hear her mother lecture in Florida. She sat in the front row, but her mother did not recognize her. Three years later, Isabetta committed suicide.
Most of “The Art of Not Sitting Pretty” is about Neel’s transgressions as a parent. Reading the life of an artist, one wants to deepen one’s understanding of the work — not judge the artist in her role as mother. Hoban goes too far. That said, books like Hoban’s or Arianna Huffington’s controversial biography of Picasso (“Picasso: Creator and Destroyer”), in which his treatment of his wives is detailed and questioned, have tremendous appeal for readers.
May those readers interested in the lives of female artists be released from accounts seen through the keyhole of the bedroom door. Neel’s portraits of working-class people are more than “visceral”: Her work amounts to much more than the terrible sorrow she left behind. A different high court awaits her — questions that will be asked by her children, their children and their children’s children. The readers want to look at Neel’s paintings and see the paintings first, not the tragic relationships.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.
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