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Alice Neel’s Portraits and the Force of Her Character

portrait of Alice Neel and Elenka
Alice Neel portrait in her studio by © Lynn Gilbert 1976, New York. Right: Alice Neel, Elenka, 1936. © The Estate of Alice Neel Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner.

Alice Neel (1900–1984) was a visual artist known for her portraits of friends and family. AWT columnist Micaela Brinsley shares a creative look at her work and Neel’s talent for capturing the energy of her subjects.

She’s the start of this, open ended. Maybe there’s a shade to a backdrop you know already. Too faint to tell what it’s suggesting but I’m sure it’s something about loneliness—no? Or maybe I’m listening for it as it’s shading me this season, day after day after day. Not quite sure why, but even now, as I sit at a desk thinking of a pulsating force, “what” is the word that’s coming. Not whether or when or how, but the inside of a person. She’s crossing in front of us now and we can tell it’s her. 

Alice Neel, Elenka
Alice Neel, Elenka, 1936. © The Estate of Alice Neel Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner.

ELENKA: Try to ravish me I dare you, her eyes say, but you can’t dream of getting close. Challenging the eyebrows of anyone gazing at her to try to match them. Her hand’s bent particularity soft, as if beckoning in its repertoire but she’s waiting to decide if those of us looking at her, if we’re worthy. On her eyelids sits a clock that’s ticking away time for the rest of us, but she’s inside of it. What she ate for breakfast, what nicknames her friends call her, what street she traverses back and up again, where she buys groceries, what bank she goes to, all of that… we won’t know. But we don’t need to, in order to understand. Why her white shirt, with slight ruffles at the top, doesn’t look juvenile. Why one of her cheeks is more pink than the other, even though they aren’t. Why the eyeshadow in that pastel blue isn’t a mask, but an enhancement. Not of anything close to beauty, but specificity. 

She’s awake, painting. Never desperate, she didn’t beckon nor linger, on extraneous details. No fingernails, painted over as if in invitation. No fridge ever full, her focus wasn’t there. But that force inside, the “what” I’m still not sure how to name, it’s there for all of us to see. That’s the satisfaction, isn’t it? That she understood the person as first. 

Alice Neel, Kate Millett
Alice Neel, Kate Millett, 1970. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © The Estate of Alice Neel.

KATE: From the eye contact, it’s clear. Instant, the perspective. She doesn’t need to prove, no need. She doesn’t wait for it, permission. Whatever she’s thinking, she’s its conviction. She’s in the streets. She’s in the classroom, tearing down its rules. She’s in a library, writing. Her name’s in bookstores. Her eyes, a provocation. You can’t outsmart me, they spit. We agree. She’s at another protest. Another opening for an exhibit on her work. Another panel where they discuss how radical she was, how admirable, how ahead of her time, how brave, while they still don’t pay her enough. She tells them so. Her nose does too, with its shape, as do the bent collars of her shirt. Her hair, a mane and her chest cavity’s open as she leans forward, towards the eyes of the artist catching her force in paint. 

She can taste it too. How colors move in line with what, with whatever it is today we’re asking for. Maybe it’s a moment of relief from the pressure of bills bills bills. Or maybe the opposite feeling, the lick of someone’s lips on a mouth, smiling. Perhaps a drawing of a smile on a vase of flowers, on a napkin—a work by a five year old, giggling as it stays up past its bedtime. Or it could be the visit to the butcher’s for the barbecue tonight, late to organize but a sister’s returned. Something specific. Something everyday. Something, here in a way that gives a moment a second of an extra breath. 

Alice Neel, Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis)
Alice Neel, Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis), 1972. © The Estate of Alice Neel Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner.

IRENE: Tired’s a word reserved for people with less heart. With a posture like hers, there’s no way we’d dare suggest it. But her eyes suggest it might be close. But she’s a Marxist girl, apparently, so she can take it. Her brown shoes, leather with a small heel, so elegant, leave her an ellipsis. She’s not so easy to pin down, with the armpit hair, loose black tank top, loose navy pants, short dark hair. She’s inviting us into languid, with her right leg braced against the edge of her magenta chair. Regal, without the violence that so often comes with that tone. We want to think like her, her mouth tells us that we do. Her collarbone. The light touch of her left hand with its bone, a period with a light touch. 

How long it takes to conjure any of them, she doesn’t know ahead of time. Depending on who she saw, the timeline for a creation’s different. Maybe what someone’s words confessed she waited for hours, for their eyes to confirm. Or during hours of sitting, confident and in position, tears flowed. Or one of her sons is sick and she got a call from their school, in the middle of her workday. How late she’s staying up, she doesn’t confess. There isn’t an ease in living this way. Sometimes not eating. Sometimes not talking. Sometimes not knowing when it’s coming next, the comfort of a hand holding hers. A moment of relief before it returns, the sequence of consecutive days with pigments as her companion.

Alice Neel, Linda Nochlin and Daisy
Alice Neel, Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973. © The Estate of Alice Neel Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner.

LINDA: Her brow’s determined to keep asking the questions. Answering them too, so we don’t forget. With her brown hair tied back away from her face, her right hand gently supports Daisy’s posture, nudging her daughter into a pose. The slight smile in her eyes teases, as if she knows what she’s written is flashing through our minds as we look at her, sitting and certain. The one who wrote the essay that upset everyone, still used as a stimulus for university conferences: Even a simple question like “Why have there been no great women artists?” can, if answered adequately, create a sort of chain reaction, expanding not merely to encompass the accepted assumptions of the single field, but outward to embrace history and the social sciences, or even psychology and literature, and thereby, from the outset, to challenge the assumption that the traditional divisions of intellectual inquiry are still adequate to deal with the meaningful questions of our time, rather than the merely convenient or self-generated ones. She’s unflinching, aware the firestorm she unleashed it’s still humming, even if we so often forget. 

She’s finished while we’ve been lingering. On colors, shoulder blades, the turn of a hand, the silence of phrases, unsaid. That’s what matters, isn’t it? The spinning coil of the inside, so often hidden. Behind the hello’s and the sweet talk, the self-indulgent introductions and the goodbyes, the brands on purses and jackets and cars, distracting us from the raw. In everyone, it’s there. What each is made for’s impossible to answer, but the questions that shape the suggestions for it, they can accumulate in colors. Expanding from time spent lingering on the dip of a face, the touch of a hand, the color of a shirt—everything’s a gesture but the perspective of paint, it’s clear. 

Alice Neel, Alice Childress
Alice Neel, Alice Childress, 1950. © The Estate of Alice Neel Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner.

ALICE: She’s an artist. A philosopher. A creator. A sage of her friends’ inner lives, of those others might disregard. She tells us what’s here. Underneath the hello’s and the sweet talk, the self-indulgent introductions and the goodbyes. Her words, she shapes them carefully for the mouths of characters to speak when it’s their turn onstage, the words we need. Her chin’s determined. Eyebrows, a proposal for Elenka. Shoulders, solid. Hair, luscious. Fingernails, painted red. Hands, clasp each other as if they both know they need each other for this work. Their work. Her work, to shape a world anew out of what she knows, believes, feels. She’s written it down for us and it’s true: My writing attempts to interpret the ‘ordinary’ because they are not ordinary. Each human is uniquely different. Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne.