Facing the Truth: ‘Alice Neel: Late Portraits & Still Lifes,’ at David Zwirner and ‘Jutta Koether: The Fifth Season,’ at Bortolami

  • Alice Neel paid attention. Of course, she also worked hard and was prodigiously talented, but the main thing is, she paid attention—such close, lucid, existentially present and profoundly generous but completely unsentimental attention to the friends, lovers, relatives and acquaintances whom she painted that her work dissolves theological mysteries more thoroughly than four years in a seminary. You can see, in her portraits, exactly how each of her models felt—not in general but in the very moments in which they were doing it—about sitting still and posing. And you can see in her still lifes the demurely exhibitionist pride that her mind’s eye attributed—and that her hand then highlighted with a subtle fisheye distortion—to a potted plant. How can something have its own complete personality while simultaneously expressing no personality other than its creator’s? And how is it possible for something to be absolutely changeless but distinctly alive?

    “Alice Neel: Late Portraits & Still Lifes,” at David Zwirner Gallery, is a rare and extraordinary grouping of 16 perfect, irreducible human beings, four bouquets of flowers, a couple of dying plants on a windowsill beside a fire escape and a wonky white chaise longue, in a total of 18 paintings dating from 1964 to 1983, the year before the artist’s death. There’s hardly a false note anywhere, and the portraits of Hugh Hurd, Lester Cole and Mary Beebe, as well as the 1980 still life Light, depicting a vase on a small table engaged in an intimate, psychosexual dance with its shadow, are all particularly strong, but the real knockouts are Neel’s portraits of family members: her son Richard, 1969; her son Hartley, 1978; and Richard’s first wife, Nancy, in a wonky chaise longue, 1980.

    Nancy lies back in the white metal chair—there are no cushions—with her left arm, on the viewer’s side, stretched along the chair’s arm, and her right arm raised behind her head. She’s wearing a short, blue-and-white print dress, and her legs are pulled up and bent, so that her feet rest on the chair’s edge and her toes hang off. Neel was scrupulously accurate, but even within scrupulous accuracy there’s plenty of room, if you know where to look, for strategic exaggeration and charming personal asides: the nakedness of Nancy’s legs, very slightly broader than they need to be and partly outlined in Neel’s distinctive royal blue, contrasts forcefully with the halfway world-weariness of her eyes. But there’s nothing in the world behind her but a patch of pea green. Richard, who in 1969 was a 30-year-old law school graduate, sits in a brown armchair. He wears a three-piece suit whose yellowish-green color is matched by the shadowed side of his face, which is full of purpose, concentration and abstraction, as he gazes over his mother’s shoulder, keeping still. The floor is orange, but then so is the wall, because what reads as carpet in the foreground, under the chair’s short wooden legs, reads as something like wainscoting by the time it gets to the back. The delicate fingers of his left hand are splayed apart, and his shiny brown shoes, like quiet jokes made in passing, turn at impossible angles.

    Hartley sits in a lower, rounder, more modern chair, wearing a necktie and jeans. His legs are also crossed, but where Richard’s crossed legs are an extension and support of his personality, the gorgeous royal blue color of Hartley’s jeans make his legs into an occasional abstract composition, a triangle with a flat hip at one corner, a straight calf descending from another, and four knuckles resting in the center. The Welsh have a proverb: “Truth is the best tale.”

    Another way to deal with theological problems is to refuse them. At Bortolami, Jutta Koether’s “The Fifth Season,” which for a few weeks overlapped with The Seasons, her installation of four paintings at the Whitney Biennial, leaps straight over the substance of its French classical and Roman-syncretistic references into a sci-fi-inflected version of the once-and-future, actually pagan past. The rosy pink color that dominates the Bortolami show’s eight paintings—four large seasonal scenes of defiantly numinous figures, Dionysian grapes, leafy curlicues and metallic silver daubs; three other large paintings; and one modestly sized portrait of a naked cat, facing away from the viewer into a stoically indifferent opacity, its body like a chicken’s carcass, its red tail like a snake charmer’s cobra, poised to strike—brings to mind the mysterious pink lasers that transmit divine messages in Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS. And the layer of brown gravel that covers the floor, looking like a cross between the analytically ordered white gravel of a formal French garden and the dusty, fertile, animal-like nakedness of a freshly furrowed field, makes viewers self conscious with its crunching noises and is just the right conceptual foundation for tantalizing fever dreams of a Saturnine golden age too good to be true—but most of all it really makes that pink laser color pop.

    Ms. Koether paints careful, often intensely jabbed, madly discontinuous marks directly onto raw canvas. (Winter is acrylic on sooty tan, with shiny puddles of resin on top, but the rest are oil on white.) Pencil lines are unconcealed, and most of the paintings have corners marked off like the photo corners in a scrapbook. In Summer, a tree of knowledge stands on the left and a race car driver on the right, either pointing upward or beckoning in; between and behind them, an iconic mountain, as perfectly triangular as Fuji, is outlined; faint lines divide the canvas into even 16ths. The rose color alters and co-opts the white canvas, creating a profoundly deceptive openness. What your mind wants to understand as an unworked background, your eye can’t help seeing as an active force, one that is not merely opaque but is the very quintessence of unanalyzable opacity.

    editorial@observer.com