Marlene Dumas on Alice Neel
When Alice Neel started to become better known in America in the early 1970’s, I was an art student in South Africa. By that time, in my existential search for the human face and figure, I knew the work of Bacon and Hockney and looked at the photographs of Diana Arbus and the silk screens of Andy Warhol, but no-one showed me Alice Neel. However, when I did finally stumble on a reproduction of her work somewhere, it immediately stuck. Strangely, when I got to Holland in the late 70’s, no one there knew about her either.
I never met Alice Neel in person. It was not because she was a woman or had a difficult life that I fell for her. It was not because of her witty writings that I was attracted to her work. I only discovered that to my surprise, much later on.
What struck me as very special, very welcome but truely extraordinary was the fact that not only did she paint ordinary people sitting on ordinary chairs who were actually dressed in the (by now outdated) colorful fashions of their time, but in spite of, or, at the same time, it was also still a modern painting. It was her achievement, that she could paint anxiety in bright (even decorative) colors. My generation was taught that modernism did not like the seasonal changes that were the natural realm of fashion, because art dealt with the universal, the timeless and the eternal. Art should not illustrate or be tied to the likenesses of a specific time and place. That is why, even now, I mostly paint naked people, because I still can’t picture the sublime with a dress on.
Most figurative painters of the late 20th century placed their figures in a sort of nowhere or non-space. Alice always located her subjects. She lived somewhere. People live in a place, share the same space. They are related. There’s been a lot of artistic talk about ‘Identity’ these last 20 years. Critics love the noun, placing the emphasis on the wrong spot. Alice used the verb. She identified. It is about identifying ‘with’: to find the right balance in the power struggle between the artist and subjects. That is the transformative magic of portraiture and Alice painted portraits. She didn’t paint models, she didn’t paint monsters. She painted people.
Most figurative painting is not about people or rather they seldom paint ‘characters’. Guston painted cartoons. Warhol public images, Chuck Close uses portraiture to paint about painting, Katz paints the cool, Peyton paints dreams…
It is interesting to note that in the recently published, Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, by Foster, Krauss, Bois and Buchloch, the word ‘portraiture’ does not appear in their elaborate index, neither is there a mention of Katz, Close or Alice Neel for that matter . They do mention somewhere the fact that conceptualists regarded the portrait as a historically obsolete model…. .
Neel is a modernist portrait painter, if you wish. When her paintings are good, they vibrate and tremble with an energy as nervous as Munch. It disturbs and disorientates without making use of extreme expressionisms or surreal proportions or dramatic distortions (coming from the African continent I don’t call her akward perspectives ‘distortions’, it seems quite naturel to me.) It’s a mixture of Picasso and Matisse, maybe stirred not shaken. It is both harsh and sweet. It deals with both love and fear simultanously. She moves fast. I like that the interaction between her and her life models breathes. She does not paint the weight of the waiting. She draws and talks with the paint. She does not treat the painting as an endless hard labour. She treats it as an opportunity to feel free. As she said ‘a way to overcome the alienation’. I feel similar. I admire the work’s unfinished look, the underkill. When it’s over, it’s done.
Alice did not die young. Yes, not everything she painted was a masterpiece. But art is not (only) about masters and pieces. It is also about attitude and courage. The unflattering criticism she received about her nude self-portrait at aged eighty, is unforgivably stupid. She painted the most touching paintings of pregnant women that I have ever seen. And, although not consciously, I think my painting The Painter (1994) is indebted to and paid homage to her portrait of Andy Warhol (1970), one of the most beautiful paintings of our century.
Alice Neel | Alice doesn’t live here anymore. First published in Alice Neel. Painted Truths, (cat.), Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2010; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts | On Others, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.