Saturday, September 24, 2011

Phoebe Hoban and the Iconoclastic Painter Alice Neel

In her engrossing biography, “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty” (St. Martin’s, $35), the arts journalist Phoebe Hoban has chronicled the tumultuous life of one of America’s great 20th century portrait painters. Alice Neel’s story was a messy one, full of abusive relationships, depression, decades of obscurity and and a life crowned with 20 years of superstar status from the 1960s to her death in 1984.

With dogged research and clear prose, Hoban follows Neel from her birth in 1900 into a claustrophobic Victorian family in Pennsylvania to art school, her early rebellions and a tortured marriage to a Cuban painter. She lived the bohemian life in 1930s Greenwich Village and was a leftist painter in Spanish Harlem. Neel was a “curator of souls,” painting often unflattering portraits of her subjects that cut to the bone. Much of Neel’s life was spent in poverty, but her obsessions with her art came first, before family and her own comfort.

Hoban has been writing about the American art scene since the mid-1980s and is the author of a bestselling biography on the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hoban met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at the National Arts Club in Manhattan.

Q. Why did you decide to write a biography of Alice Neel?

A. It was a combination of seeing her art and reading a short piece in the Times during her 2000 retrospective at the Whitney Museum that revealed she had lived in Havana and had a wild life. I found out there was no biography of Neel. It was a lot of work. I didn’t get cooperation from her family until six month before I completed the book.

(Alice Neel)

Q. Neel was a tough personality--her friends called her “Malice.” Why do you refer to her life as a “great American saga”?

A. My parents were artists and my aunt was an artist. I was not unacquainted with difficult, narcissistic people who nonetheless have a lot to offer. Neel was a familiar character and it wasn’t hard for me to get into her personality. Part of what drew me to Neel was that her life cut a swath across the 20th century, and she was impacted by the great political and social changes.

Q. Why was such a great portrait painter pushed into obscurity through the 1940s and 1950s?

A. There were a number of reasons. She was a woman and a figurative painter, and she was a social realist painter. Though she evolved out of social realism, by the 1950s the Abstract Expressionists had taken over and she absolutely refused to convert.

(Neel's portrait of feminist Kate Millett that was on the cover of Time in 1970)

Q. Neel’s portraits are often harsh psychological studies of her subjects. How would you describe them?

A. Alice Neel said it best. She wanted to capture the zeitgeist, and she used her subjects as evidence of her time. When she lived in Spanish Harlem, she reflected people’s poverty and desperation. Neel always labeled herself a humanist. She was deeply interested in people, the way a novelist is.

Q. Neel stayed with the filmmaker Sam Brody for 20 years, and during this time he physically and emotionally abused her two sons. How do you view this part of her character?

A. The hardest thing for me to reconcile was Neel’s behavior as a mother. Did she stay with Brody for the $30 a week he provided, the sex or the fact she thought he was genius, which is an narcissistic mirror? Neel was not an entirely sympathetic person. She always put herself first. She was an egomaniac.

Q. How do you see Neel after spending eight years with her?

A. Neel dedicated herself to her work and was passionate about it. She was a highly flawed but fascinating individual. For me, the fascinating overwhelmed the flaws. I hoped to do in this book what Neel did with her portraits. I think I did that.

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2011)

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