Growing up in New York City, in the 1970s, painter Alice Neel (who died in 1984, at age 84) was often in the news, with a show or retrospective at this or that gallery or museum. Such was the extent of her fame and renown, locally, that it’s hard to imagine she was anything other than a famous painter, but in the 2007 documentary, Alice Neel, directed by her grandson Andrew Neel, it is a myth that is quickly dispelled.
I’ve always felt that Neel’s talents as a painter (far closer to that of Egon Schiele than Georgia O’Keeffe, a lesser painter she’s compared to only because of her sex, not artistic affinities) were never fully documented nor discussed. The film is a good one, but could have been great had it been made by someone unattached to the subject matter. Most biopics and documentaries on artists fail because they do little to elicit the creative impulses of their subjects. This film, for instance, delves extensively, albeit superficially, into Neel’s life and loves. We hear of her failed marriages and loves, the daughter (Santillana) that died of diphtheria, the daughter (Isabetta) she left behind in Cuba, who later committed suicide and hated her mother, but little of this has bearing on Neel’s art. The worst example of the film’s failings come from the interviews Neel conducts with his grandmother’s two surviving sons: His own uncle Richard (a self-proclaimed Left Winger-cum-Right Winger), and his father Hartley. Neither man comes off as anything but bitter and self-absorbed. The former seems vapid and resentful while the former seemingly has little appreciation for his mother’s talent and import. The movie even opens with Hartley musing pseudo-profoundly on life, only to later show his pettiness in exchanging fuck yous with his son. What any of this has to do with the art of Alice Neel is something a professional filmmaker would ask and promptly leave on the cutting room floor.
On the positive side are a number of archival films (mostly black and white) wherein Neel speaks on art and displays a well grounded realism that neither of her sons seems to have inherited. Neel speaks of the idiocy of the mid-20th Century obsession with Abstract Expressionism, and its utter disconnect with why people even want to look at paintings. She schools other artists on their art, she speaks of the psychology of her portraits and, most importantly, she recognizes a key element of her own greatness: The ability to watch her work evolve, something she correctly points out that most artists never do. In the course of the film we see how her WPA era portraits, from the Great Depression, differ very much from those she did in the button down Eisenhower 50s, or the hippy 60s, or the gloomy 1970s, when she felt that young men, especially, were being enslaved by corporate models of life. And there’s no mistaking what era a painting is from, even as similarities in superficial technique are seen. It’s this ineffable difference that often is a hallmark of great art and great artists.
There are also some interesting films that show subjects sitting for Neel; including her own grandson, the filmmaker, who is seen as a child, running around his grandmother’s apartment, naked, and uninhibited, as his grandmother paints him. Another classic moment the film captures is Neel’s appearance on the Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson. Their easy interaction shows what sort of a person Neel really was, and it’s telling that there is little difference in her temperament in all the clips shown. Her earthiness seems genuine, not affected, and makes the moments of her sons being filmed abject lessons in how nature and nurture really affect most people; thus, in some small sense, making the otherwise worthless scenes with Richard and Hartley have some limited value.
But, we never get in too close to Neel. We hear of her living on Relief (the precursor to Welfare), her chronic depressions, being abused by men, and dealing with her sons and the insecurities of not having connections to the art world of dealers and curators, thus perpetuating her early artistic oblivion. Even when she gets her due later in life, we never see much of Neel’s actual ideas on her art. Yes, we get a few bon mots, and some nice shots of her figurative techniques, but the essence of the woman’s ideas on art are never explored. While some artists and art experts and historians appear, none has anything to say of depth. Typical of this is artist Chuck Close (one of the more well known painterly lightweights of the last half century) who, in several headshots, says absolutely nothing of value on her art. While one might cynically state, “Well, what do you expect, he’s Chuck Close?” that does not excuse the filmmaker’s lack of exploration. On the plus side, and to be fair, Close does show some self-recognition of his artistic limits when he relates an anecdote of first meeting Neel. After introducing himself, Neel said that she hated his work. Close said that was too bad, as he loved her work. Neel replied, after a smile, that she might take another look at Close’s work. It’s interesting to note, though, that both the hack and the great artist used emotional terms (hate and love) in describing their reactions to each other’s works. Neither, it seems, was capable of deep analysis; or so the film implies on several occasions.
Luckily, I have such a capability, and Neel’s work, although stylistically different, has an effect on the viewer much like that of Chinese painter Zhiwei Tu, as both painters do portraits wherein the human character seems to burst out of its background. Some have claimed that Neel’s backgrounds and human portraits could have been painted by two different people. I disagree, as the style is too similar, and this also ignores many of the more crowded street scenes she painted. But there’s no doubt that Neel saw painting as a drama, not just a captured moment, like photography does. In fact, one of the film’s talking heads, Robert Storr, a professor and dean at the Yale School of Art, tells the director that, in painting — especially Neel’s work — one is “seeing time happen rather than seeing time stopped.”
Alice Neel, the film, is overall a worthy film to see, but director Neel needed to step back, let the personal issues evaporate, then really give a good and hard edit to it. What could have been great ends up merely good. While a loss, very little produced in the arts fails as well as this film so bear that in mind through the frustrating moments. In this way, the film oddly recapitulates its subject’s existence. Good for it, good for us, but for the filmmaker a mixed bag, as the film never recapitulates the complexity of its subject; as if it really could . . .