Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, 29th July, 2016 to 8th October, 2016


Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh. 64 pages. ISBN 978-0-9955287-0-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Alice Neel worked as an artist for many years before achieving any real critical or popular acclaim. Born in 1900 to middle-class parents, she left school at eighteen and then enrolled for business courses which enabled her to obtain a secretarial job with the Army Air Corps. She was also taking evening classes at art school, and in 1926 had her first solo exhibition in Havana, where she had gone to join her first husband.

By 1927 she was in New York and employed in a Greenwich Village bookstore run by Fanya Foss. There’s a tantalising reference to an unpublished novel of Greenwich Village life in the 1930s by Foss in an essay by Moira Jeffrey in the catalogue. But there’s an entry on the internet referring to Foss’s first novel, Ask No Return, “which detailed the experiences of Greenwich Village artists during the Depression”. Is this possibly the same book?  RKO bought it for filming, and Foss moved to Hollywood where she became a screenwriter and later wrote for TV.  Neel painted several portraits of Foss, including one which had as its title, The Intellectual. Neel’s work was often largely concerned with portraiture, and a few still-lives and domestic interiors.

Her political sympathies were with the Left, and particularly the Communist Party, though I’d guess she was far too independently minded to ever follow a Party line. But some of her portraits were of left-wingers like Pat Whalen, a Baltimore communist involved with the waterfront unions and often subject to police harassment. It’s a particularly powerful painting with Whalen looking suitably militant and with a copy of The Daily Worker spread out on the desk in front of him. I’ve referred to this painting, even though it’s not in the Edinburgh exhibition, because of its iconic nature. It is prominently displayed on the front cover of Andrew Hemingway’s Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956 (Yale University Press, 2002). And I recall that it made quite an impact when I saw it in the large Alice Neel exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2010.

Other paintings from the 1930s, which indicated where Neel’s political sympathies could be found, were of Bill McKie, a communist activist in the Auto Workers Union (see Brother Bill McKie: Building the Union at Ford by Phillip Bonosky, International Publishers, 2000), and Art Shields, a reporter for the left-wing press, whose On the Battle Lines, 1919-1939 (International Publishers, 1986) is a colourful account of a radical life. Alice Neel’s painting of Pat Whalen is reproduced in this book, along with information about his role as a union organiser.      

A portrait which can be seen in Edinburgh is that of Aaron Kramer, a left-wing poet little-known, if at all, in this country, and probably not much acknowledged in America. But Neel clearly related to him, just as she knew many of the bohemian writers and radicals of the 1930s and beyond. Kramer’s poems were included in Seven Poets in Search of an Answer (Ackerman, 1944), along with work by, among others, Maxwell Bodenheim, Langston Hughes, Joy Davidman, and Norman Rosten. His collection, The Golden Trumpet, appeared from International Publishers in 1949, and his Thru Every Window, which included an attack on Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (“Crawl back into your crevices, Oh bards/of darkness and decay!”), was published by The William-Frederick Press in 1950. The Neel portrait of Kramer is fairly orthodox, by her standards, and may in that respect be a comment on someone who was politically radical but otherwise quite ordinary in appearance and behaviour.

Neel had a series of relationships with different men, including Kenneth Doolittle (shown in a revealing 1938 portrait) who was a seaman and, unfortunately for Neel, a drug addict with a violent streak. When they fell out he destroyed many of her paintings and drawings. Other, more beneficial relationships, were with Sam Brody, a founder-member of the radical Film and Photo League, and John Rothschild, described as “a Harvard graduate from a wealthy background”, who was also an artist. There are portraits, of varying kinds (she didn’t necessarily turn out straightforward representations of her subjects) of all these people in the Edinburgh exhibition.

I think these few references (and there were other involvements and relationships) will point to Neel’s preference for a free-wheeling kind of life. When she was investigated by the FBI in 1955 because of her communist inclinations, she was described, perhaps in a way that would have pleased her, as a “romantic Bohemian type Communist”. A little later, she had a small part in the 1959 “underground” film, Pull My Daisy, which also featured Larry Rivers, David Amram, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg, and had a voice-over narration by Jack Kerouac. Her bohemian connections were obviously still intact. Was it Rivers, artist, jazz musician, writer, who brought Neel into contact with the Beats?  They might have seemed tame stuff compared to the 1930s radicals, but they were looked on with suspicion, and thought of as subversives, by the FBI, so associating with them was a continuation of Neel’s interest in the less conventional members of society.

Many of the paintings and drawings on display in Edinburgh date from the 1960s and 1970s when Neel was beginning to attract some attention from younger artists and radicals, and feminists  were interested in finding forerunners in terms of women who had set their own agendas and, despite everything, never gave up on them, either personally or politically. They’re often of family members and friends, and with less emphasis on political activists (the old left had almost disappeared), and essentially intended to capture the personalities of the subjects rather than their realistic appearances. Colourful, and with an often humorous, though not necessarily benign aspect to them, they are difficult to classify in terms of placing them in a specific style.

One critic is quoted as saying: “Miss Neel seems to detect a hidden weakness in her sitters which she drags out, yelping, into the clear glare of day.” Some viewers, looking at the portraits casually, could be inclined to see a pop art angle to certain of them, though that could be because of surface aspects of clothes and hair, and I  doubt that they really do fit anywhere into that category. Others might want to see them as caricatures. But it seems to me that they’re just pure Alice Neel. She had her own idiosyncratic way of representing the world around her and the people in it.

To be fair, there may be a strong case for placing at least some of Neel’s more-graphic paintings within a tradition that Bram Dijkstra explored in his American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920-1950 (Abrams, 2003). Dijkstra seems to concur with the critic referred to above when he refers to Neel emphasising “her take on the psychological oddities she identified in (or read into)” the personalities of her sitters. The examples that Dijkstra uses, in particular one of a fellow-artist, Bessie Boris, certainly add weight to his claims. Neel’s portrait shows what Dijkstra describes as a “nervous, hesitant, self-doubting, yet intellectually engaged woman”. It can’t help but attract the viewer’s attention.     

It’s more than probable that Neel’s radicalism, in both its bohemian and political meanings, worked against her achieving success prior to the 1960s when the changing social mood in America began to clear the air the of the compliance and conformity that had been around during the McCarthy years. I’m not sure that some of her more sexually explicit drawings, a couple of which are in the exhibition, would have been displayed, anyway, before the 1960s. And her famous portrait of the old Greenwich Village bohemian, Joe Gould, still has the power to, if not shock, then at least cause the viewer to stop and wonder at its brazenness. It certainly stood out in the Whitechapel Gallery.

Alice Neel: The Subject and Me doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive survey of her work, but within its framework it does manage to suggest the range of her activities. As well as her obvious liking for bohemians, Neel lived for many years in Spanish Harlem and painted and sketched the people she knew there. Her 1954 City Hospital catches the busy nature of a crowded public ward. And the 1942 Spanish Mother and Child is a small but stark image of poverty and despair.

The slim but excellent catalogue provides the necessary information about her personal life, something that is impossible to separate from her art. She seemed to enjoy drawing or painting almost everyone she met, and it’s said that when she was interviewed by two FBI operatives, she asked if they would sit for her. They declined, probably thinking that it was some sort of communist plot to compromise them. What a pity. It would have been fun to have seen them in the exhibition and the well-illustrated catalogue.