The Mob Loves Alice Neel, But I Think She’s Mean

Everyone loves the paintings of Alice Neel. Everyone but me.

In the catalogue of The Art of Alice Neel , currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I am described as one of the artist’s “enemies.” It’s true that I wrote some unfavorable notices of her work, and Alice–as I shall refer to her here–took unfavorable criticism very hard. She considered it a kind of lèse majesté . Her customary response to such affronts was to attempt an amateur psychoanalysis of the perpetrator.

“Hilton, I know why you hate my paintings,” she once said to me. We had run into each other in the lobby of the Whitney. “It’s because you hated your mother.” In fact, as I patiently explained to her, I was very fond of my mother; it was Alice’s paintings that I disliked. But this was a distinction that Alice couldn’t fathom. She preferred her explanation to mine, though, of course, she knew nothing about my mother–or about me either, for that matter. Nor did I hate her paintings; I just didn’t think they were very good.

Many people liked Alice’s style of impudent, aggressive talk, and she was used to getting away with it. They liked it for the same reason they liked her paintings. It was part of her act: playing the role of the sassy old lady to the delight of her proper bourgeois admirers. As a performance, it was certainly a huge success. It was far more entertaining than her paintings, too. The old boys at the Whitney used to lap it up, and much that we read in the catalogue of the current exhibition is a recycling of familiar stories about her verbal audacities.

The current show at the Whitney is the third that the museum has devoted to Alice’s work. Even so, it has proved to be insufficient for her hard-core fans–among them Roberta Smith, who complained in The New York Times that the Whitney had done Alice wrong by failing to devote more than one floor to the current exhibition.

Well, as you might expect, one floor has proved to be more than sufficient for me. After all, the style (really an anti-style) of Alice’s portraits–and it is only in her portraits that her work makes an even minimal claim on our attention–is badly handicapped by the incessant and apparently involuntary repetition of certain unlovely pictorial gimmicks. There is that bug-eyed look she gives to the faces of so many of her subjects, whether they are children or young men and women or geriatric ruins. She even waited until she was a geriatric ruin herself before attempting her first self-portrait at the age of 80–and in the nude, of course. I don’t count as self-portraits the 1935 drawing of a naked Alice sitting on the toilet while her naked lover pisses into the sink, and similar mementos of la vie de bohème .

Then, too, there is the buckeye paint-handling, which has all the delicacy and charm of an apprentice mason applying mortar with a trowel. In lieu of anything resembling a pictorial structure in her portraits, moreover, Alice was hopelessly dependent upon a few illustrational formulas for modeling her subjects. To these she added color for flashy effect–the kind of effect that creates its own pictorial monotony in any sizable showing of these portraits.

Her principal talent, in my judgment, was for rendering a likeness, and people do so like a likeness. The downside of this was that she turned every likeness into a type. Ann Temkin, who organized the current show at the Whitney, gets it exactly right when she observes that Alice painted “with the eye of a caricaturist.” Which is to say that she turns almost all of her subjects into something freakish, misshapen and ill-fated. There are exceptions, to be sure: The portraits of her son Hartley and other members of the family are respectful, flattering and affectionate. Certain artists and art-world figures were similarly exempted from the caricaturist’s impulse to mock and defame–among them, Faith Ringgold, Marisol, Henry Geldzahler and Annie Sprinkle. But as Ms. Sprinkle, the porn star who became a performance artist, is herself a caricature, no mockery was needed. True, she comes off in Alice’s portrait looking a little stunted, and the picture itself is little more than a painted cartoon, but Ms. Sprinkle was an ideal subject for Alice–a ready-made, so to speak.

Other subjects were not so lucky. “Neel zooms in on a person’s physical imperfections,” writes Ms. Temkin in a remarkable understatement. She might have added that at times Alice was given to exaggerating or even inventing imperfections. I wonder if I’m really alone in finding the second version of her portrait of Frank O’Hara (1960) and her later portrait of Meyer Schapiro (1983), to cite but two of many examples, really appalling.

But everyone loves Alice’s paintings anyway. As Jean Cocteau once said in another context, she knew exactly how far she could go in going too far. Alice socked it to the art-world suits, and they loved her for it. Six years after her death, she is a success, suitable entertainment for the summer-tourist season at the Whitney on the first stop of a national tour.

The Art of Alice Neel remains on view at the Whitney Museum through Sept. 17, and will then travel to museums in Andover, Mass., Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Denver.