Saturday, June 18, 2022

Art I'm Looking at: Alice Neel at the De Young

Hubert and Rita (1954)
With an open mind and largely ignorant about the career and work of Alice Neel, I visited the De Young Museum yesterday to see the Alice Neel retrospective. 

David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock (1970)
What struck me most forcefully was how comfortable she appears to have been with work that appears unfinished. I was reminded of some of the paintings of Edvard Munch, which likewise feature bold, unmodified brushstrokes and areas of unpainted canvas. I was also reminded of Gilbert Stuart, who is probably best known for his portraits of George Washington. I've read that Stuart loved to paint faces but found painting backgrounds and clothing tedious. As a result, he sometimes left portraits unfinished.

Richard in the Era
of the Corporation (1978-1979)
I wonder if Neel felt the same way? I doubt it. That's not the impression I got from looking at her riveting portraits. I felt rather that, having so skillfully captured the essence of her sitter, she may have felt the rest was simply superfluous. The paintings suggest not laziness but an uncanny ability to capture a look, a gesture, or a posture, that says everything that needs to be said. The palpable presence of the sitter in these paintings is unsettling because it so strongly contrasts with the economy of the brushwork, particularly in the later paintings. The paintings, as I've said, often look unfinished. They sometimes look cartoonish (an effect heightened by the creamy whites and pastel hues she sometimes uses that reminded me of Wayne Thiebaud confections). Some of the work is reminiscent of Van Gogh in its directness and almost naive use of paint. Some reminded me of David Hockney—a painter I don't much care for because his simplicity of style too often suggests vapidity to me rather than  anything substantial, in sharp contrast with the impression I get from Neel. Despite these characteristics, the sitter is always there in Neel's portraits. These paintings seem to be alive. 

Cindy Nemser and Chuck (1975)

Seeing the Alice Neel show at the De Young Museum was a very worthwhile way to spend a few hours. Recommended. The show closes on July 10. 

Pregnant Woman (1971)

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