A favorite artist these days is Alice Neel–as I am able to see more of her paintings the greatest of her achievement becomes more obvious–is there a late 20th century American painter of the figure who is her equal?
It is inexplicable that the current exhibition of her work, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and now in London at the White Chapel Gallery, is not slated for a showing in New York, her home, it’s people her subject.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a telling exhibit of figurative artists, Facing the Figure: Selected Works from the Collection, 1962–2007 on view this summer and I have made it a point to try and visit most lunch hours to look at the 2 portraits by Neel, of Henry Geldzahler and Arthur Bullowa. Also included, paintings by Alex, Katz, Fairfirld Porter, Richard Diebenkorn, Phillip Pearlstein, Will Barnet and Andrew Wyeth.
The installation in the mezzanine gallery is intimate, and makes it possible to study the surface of the painting, faces of her subjects, at a few inches distance, and to discern the traces of initial drawing in paint and begin to understand how she put these pictures together. She had a complete understanding of the structure of the human figure and of styles of representation which gave her the freedom to either depict elements of the figure broadly or in detail, flatly or in volume, with greater realism or expression, and to select freely from this vocabulary as she worked across the figure or face the modes of representation that the picture required.
I try to see what the structure is that an individual painter has developed that allows them to manage all the varieties of information contained in a human face. Neel seems most always to emphasize the contour of the shape of the face, and within that the volumetric shape of the face, with clearly observed side planes that push the front of the face forward, and to draw the volume of the forehead and nose together. This provides a good foundation to support a variety of possible treatments of the details of the features, which may be drawn in line or more fully rendered.