Alice Neel is a painter whom I've been interested in for many years. I spent a few days with her since she was a guest artist at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where I was teaching painting. Together we selected 33 of her paintings from her apartment studio in New York for her show at the universtiy. Soon after her visit to the university she returned to Chicago and I took her through the Chicago Art Institute's collection. What I mean by "taking" her is that her age didn't allow her to walk through the collection so I wheeled her through the galleries in a wheelchair. What an exceptional time that was for me since her responsive comments about what she was seeing was a delight to consider. I want to explain my appreciation for what she accomplished through her work and at the same time discuss how (and perhaps why) she differs from other painters whose work I greatly value.
In my opinion, one produces emotions through form in a painting or one isn't painting. So I want to point out two different attitudes toward form and the kind of emotions they generate.
I'll begin by comparing Andre Derain's Genevieve Taillade in an Orange Jacket and Alice Neel's, Mady and also Neel's Portrait of Sam. (all below)
There is a huge difference in form making and in the emotional content intended by both painter's formmaking.
These three images are highly energized oil paintings of people. Very lively people. And they’re made by two very different sensibilities.
Let me introduce the emotional aspect that I’ve suggested. And I’m going to do it crudely first of all.
The Derain is deeply charming and warm whereas the Neel is absent of this tenderness. (And you’ll not find that emotion in any of Neel’s paintings whether they be of children or adults. (Charming is far from the operative word for Neel's paintings). In any case, what I see and feel is caused by the structure of the painting and all the complications that involves.
Of course, not everyone’s eye and mind receives the painter’s illusions of form in exactly same way. Actually the mechanisms in the eye operates the same but what one does with the information is different in each viewer.
And the representational painter is looking at the motif and trying to get their hand to put down what he/she is actually seeing in the motif and onto the flat surface before them. But what they‘re “actually” seeing and how they get it down is the most relevant and interesting issue.
When I first saw Neel’s people paintings (she’s painted few other "subjects".), I thought they were more or less cartoon-like caricatures and yet……. they were more than that. But there was no denying that they were lively and lively seemed like the right idea for people painting, of course.
I’ll continue below the 3 reproductions concerning the very different means and results that Neel and Derain have brought to bear on their paintings. It really is extraordinary.
Alice Neel, Mady
Andre Derain, Genevieve Taillade in an Orange Coat
Both painter's vision is guided by very different interests in what they want to say about what they see. Neel paints people almost exclusively whereas Derain paints what might be said to be traditional 20th century motifs. ( Still Life, Landscapes, and Portraits). Neel once said something like, I want to paint people who have been torn apart by the rat race of the city. Again, somehting like that. I'll have to get the exact quote and edit it into this. Neel's consistant subject therefore has nothing to do with Derain's interest in consistant inventive beauty. Both painters are extremely sucessful in doing what only they could do, being who they are: And since I'm much more interested in painting than I am in installations, I'm drawn into each of their paintings by the high level of significant description of what they see before them. Neel claimed to fit into the Expressionist camp but in explaining that she said, "I suppose so" since she wasn't one to accept simplistic labels. In trying to imagine how she was like an Expressionist, she said that she wished she would be out there in the territory of Soutine and that ought to tell you something. She didn't feel that she was able to go where Soutine had gone but then, despite her tenacious courage to be herself and belive in herself, she had moments of desire to accomplish more than she had. When sitting before a particular Van Gogh in the Chicago Art Institute, she said to me, "I will have left nothing". Naturally I disagreed with her and said so.
But let me return to the idea of FORM and it's importance to great painting. There is no question that Neel's paintings are form-ful. But the forms are wrenched from their matter of fact positioning in ordinary "real life" into interactive locations that are loaded with Neel's amazing brand of modern day expressionism. Whereas, Derain's forms are caressed into relationships that are elegant modern day inventions based on classical underpinings. Should beauty enter into this short essay here? How about realism? How abut, Who's telling the truth? How about, How do you feel when you view either of these two painters? For me, I feel there have been no better people painters on the modern New York scene during Neel's time nor currently. And as for Derain, I feel overwhelmed with a sense of beauty in this portrait of Genevieve. What knowledge and sensitivity to cause paint to form into meaning in that way.