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The Magic Social Realism of Alice Neel

Though it was widely accepted that the artist Alice Neel was a big fibber, her boast that she was “old as the century” was never a falsehood. Born January 28, 1900, she grew up with the twentieth century, and the trajectory of her life – her struggles, her triumphs –twinned that of our country though significant success eluded her until she was in her sixties. Today, her hard gems of truth and beauty continue to find new audiences, most recently via “Alice Neel, Uptown,” an exhibition of her portraits at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. I believe this is because her work, like Neel herself, was not just a product of its time but also ahead of it.

Neel first came on my radar last year, when I was cruising through a gallery of contemporary paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Though I was rushing, I screeched to a full stop in front of “John I. H. Baur,” her 1974 portrait of a former museum department head. With a palette of slate and ochre and a bold, almost slapdash brushstroke, she’d conveyed the man as both an institutional hack and a bemused enabler. It was a funny portrait but rueful and rich, too. I rushed on, but when I saw the Zwirner gallery was hosting a show of her work, I hightailed over not once but thrice. These paintings of her family, neighbors, friends, lovers, and political comrades in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side are not perfect. In some cases, they could ask more; they could tell more. But they grip as few twentieth-century portraits do because they are so vibrant, so cock-sure – and so defiantly resonant.

Though his book, White Girls, offers general cultural commentary, Hilton Als is employed by The New Yorker as a critic of theater, not fine arts. Yet he curated this Zwirner exhibition, perhaps because Neel’s intensely democratic curiosity snags his own. (His book on the topic will be released this June.) In a catalog essay, he shares what this child of West Indian immigrants, raised in deep Brooklyn to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, initially recognized in her work Continue Reading →

Here Comes the Sun

All hail the vernal equinox! This is a glorious day not just because there’ll be more light than darkness from here on in. It’s glorious because everything is perfectly balanced, and, more than most times, we can trust that what feels good is also right since that balance extends to each and every one of us. To reflect this hallowed equinox, I’ve chosen an Alice Neel painting of Andy Warhol superstars Ritta Redd and Jackie Curtis, who had a beautiful balance that was uniquely their own. Take a few moments to assess what is your unique balance—not according to a “should” so much as according to your most specific desires. While you’re at it, take a few more moments to thank the sun for being such a wonderfully constant life bearer. Even in our worst times, we are so lucky she glows upon us.

Venus as a Lone Wolf

I wake with longing. This is not new for me; this is not new for most people. Desire is the human condition. To be alive, to be embodied, is to need things in one form or another—food, water, shelter, sleep, air. Every minute of every day, our bodies drive us: They have to eat; they have to breathe; they have to shit and piss and cum; they are restless; they are tired; they are cold; they are hot. They crave contact.

I have been a lone wolf, an alley cat, for most of my life. I did not cathect to my tribe though I tried. I have never cathected to any tribe since. I was too psychic to bear dishonesty, too much of a Capricorn to bear laziness, too much of an aesthete to bear bad taste, too sensitive to bear spitefulness. I preferred people who tried their best, who prized truth and compassion over comfort and status.

Thus I have spent most of my life alone. I have learned to love in a vacuum.

When I was young I was guilty of the worst sort of manipulations. I saw people as stools and steps rather than stars unto themselves. I sang for my supper. I fucked for security. I preened for admiration. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy