When I was an undergraduate art student at Stony Brook, I had developed a “style” of painting, one that I naively thought would carry me through life, that was founded on my deep admiration of early Twentieth Century expressionist art and had evolved through my natural inclination to emphasize line and employ spontaneous, impasto brushwork. Fellow students who were familiar with my painting would regularly recommend that I should look at the work of Alice Neel, a name I was unfamiliar with at that time. Today, it would take a matter of seconds to find on the Internet an extensive collection of images of any moderately successful artist’s work, but then it was more a matter of luck. I might come across a monograph at the public library or happen to be in NYC when a gallery show of her work was underway. The odds were not in my favor. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Fine Arts Center’s gallery would be hosting a show of Alice Neel’s work. Somehow, through sheer serendipity, I found myself attending the show opening and as I dashed into the gallery I was dismayed to see that there were no other visitors to that rather large space except for two individuals seated on folding chairs situated in the center of the room. One was a bespectacled, middle-aged man wearing a sports jacket and the other was a plump elderly woman with pure white hair, who I understood must be the artist herself. They quietly chatted while I viewed the work, my sneakers squeaking loudly on the hardwood floors. Instantly I understood why so many people had seen connections between our work. Alice Neel was mainly a portrait painter as I was then. There were the same love of line, the use of distortion to convey the personality of the sitter and the utilization of a heightened palette, but her work, of course, was far better than mine: her compositions more complex, her tones more nuanced, her painting more organic and less programmatic and her themes more mature and varied. I was very impressed and took my time studying each painting, hoping the entire time that a couple more visitors might materialize real soon. No one showed. As I completed my circuit of the show, I had a lot of questions and comments gathered in my head, but I was too shy to approach the artist. Instead, I acknowledged her with an ineffectual half wave and a nod of my head, thanked her and fled the gallery. I regret to this day the missed opportunity.
Neel, actively painted from the 1920’s through her death in 1984, but it is her portraits of the 60’s and 70’s that established her reputation. I can’t think of any other artist who captured the spirit of that unique era as successfully as she did. Warhol recorded images of celebrities in that period, but it was Neel who focused on the everyman, the ordinary individual that peopled our surroundings every day. With wry humor, she documents the awkward fashions and over-the-top hairdos of her sitters, while paying homage to this fertile period of transformation in the
. United States
Alice Neel - Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation - 1933
Alice Neel - Well Baby Clinic - 1928
Over time, her palette lightened up and bold color invaded her compositions. She almost exclusively painted portraits, finding a new sensitivity to form and light which she expressed in thin semitransparent washes of color rapidly applied to canvas. Neel’s paintings became intuitive, some areas, particularly heads, receiving focused attention, other areas covered in broad, unmodulated washes, the canvas often left altogether bare in places. A spidery, meandering line energizes her portraits. Distortion, rather than leading to abstraction, actually heightens the sense of reality and helps to convincingly convey the personalities of her sitters. There is no doubt that Neel empathizes with her subjects, that her interest in portraying these individuals is anchored in compassion and sympathy.
Alice Neel - Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian - 1978
Alice Neel - The Family - 1970
Alice Neel - Ian and Mary - 1970
Alice Neel - Richard Gibbs - 1968
I think it’s legitimate to categorize Neel’s mature work as expressionist. I arrived at my own approach through an interest in the work of the German and Austrian Expressionists (Kirchner, Heckel, Schiele, Kokoschka, Mueller, Schmidt-Rottluff, Gerstl and Pechstein), who were active in the early 1900’s. These expressionists were also concerned with the dispossessed and the marginalized within their societies but, in the deceptive lull before World War I and the Great Depression, saw life within the underclasses as enticing, a welcome alternative to a life defined by bourgeois values and restrictions. They reveled in painting prostitutes, gypsies, street urchins and circus performers, individuals they saw as free to exist elementally, pursuing healthy and natural inclinations. On the other hand, their portraits of members of their own class were critical, often depicting their sitters as mummified or angst-ridden or repressed.
Having been raised in a somewhat conservative, middle class household in a suburban community fairly devoid of cultural or intellectual diversions, I was similarly motivated to seek escape through art and reacted powerfully to the work of these artists. In my work, I sought to free myself from inhibitions and restraints and to criticize the empty values that were blindly promoted within my culture. Like Neel, I chose to use portraiture as my primary tool in accomplishing this goal. There were a number of reasons for this, the foremost being that I was obsessed with expressing form in paint, the human body offering the perfect subject matter with which to do this. I was also seeking an immediacy in my work, an intuitive approach to painting that rejected the rational and formalism and embraced the instinctive. With very little instruction on my part, I would allow my sitter to pose naturally, only occasionally asking for minor adjustments in positioning or gesture. With extremely thin paints, I rapidly sketched my subject, then I used thick, impasto strokes of relatively unmodulated color ro bring out form. I would usually complete a portrait in one or two sessions. I particularly enjoyed working with live subjects, individuals that I selected from amongst intimates and acquaintances. For me, at that time, it was important to reveal the cracks and flaws inherent in the personality of my sitter as I believed that they reflected in microcosm the imperfections, misconceptions and hypocrisies of our society as a whole. I took an almost devilish delight in doing this. The sitter was a tool in accomplishing this end, and I was ruthless in its execution. I must confess that, unlike Neel, I was motivated very little by compassion or empathy when painting a portrait.
Wickham - Howardena Pindell - 1981 - 30" X 20"
Wickham - Lisa II - 1981 - 24" X 30"
Wickham - David and Matthew - 1981 - 30" X 24"
Wickham - Marie Dauenheimer - 1981 - 30" X 20"
Wickham - Betty - 1981 - 30" X 24"
Wickham - Gesture - 1980 - 24" X 18"