May 9, 2007

Alice Neel's Ultimate Portrait

Art Fag City: Grandson's doc reveals the family below the surface of famous artist's work

By Paddy Johnson

Famous portraitist and contemporary doc subject Alice Neel with her work in 1940 (Photo: Alice Neel Estate)

"I often go into a documentary because I know what I want to say about something," director Andrew Neel recently told me during a chat in Williamsburg. Indeed, his new documentary Alice Neel (screening at Cinema Village through May 17) demonstrates no lack of focus, tackling copious art clichés while carefully constructing a sensitive portrait of the figurative painter who is its namesake. Inheriting the distinctive Neel voice, the film mimics the work of his grandmother (who passed away in 1984), presenting family and friends with a directness and honesty that probably annoys as much as it does pleases them. Like the paintings themselves, spats spurred by the unwillingness to discuss various subjects resolve themselves uneasily, often resulting in the bittersweet.

The film traces the artist's life with a mix of historical footage and fresh interviews highlighting her lifelong guilt for making art rather than choosing a more practical profession. Neel revisits the effect the loss of Alice's first child had on her mental health and work, following with her rise in status through the '60s and '70s to her position as a role model for the women's movement during that time. At each point, the traditional biography becomes a means of showcasing the conflicted benevolence, intellect and individuality of the director's subjects; in this case, Neel's sons Hartley and Richard praise her as a wonderful mother and artist while damning her for professional and personal choices that scarred them emotionally. "First you have to be able to live, then you have to be able to paint," Alice tells interviewer Terry Gross midway through the film, only to remark later: "I'd rather paint than anything."

The artist's candor is not only entertaining (painter Chuck Close recalls Alice's first words upon their introduction; "Chuck Close? I hate your work!" is among the highlights), but it also provides insight into her own straightforward creative process. She reveals the unpopular desire for her work to look zeitgeist, expressing distaste for artists whose work remains the same for decades on end. No artist seeks stagnancy, but the philosophy cleanly separates her from a peer majority that would not admit to wanting their work to be pinned to a particular decade. Alice's ideology largely derives from the fact that art professionals largely buy into the idea that painting should be timeless, even though thousands of years of art history documenting work made within clearly identifiable periods proves otherwise. Such myths frequently make their way into art documentaries as truth, so it's refreshing when a film actually serves its purpose and actually serves to dispel a few of them.

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However, this also provokes the one minor criticism I have of the movie: While there are only a few of portraiture's equivalent to the money shot -- the scrolling eyes of sitters -- that's still too many for my taste. Additionally, the filmmaker's overuse of cropped photos obscures the fact that the majority of Neel's paintings were verticals. "It's a problem for sure," Andrew Neel told me. "I had an aesthetic aversion to showing full frames because with letterbox it breaks the aesthetic flow of the frame. So I made a very considered decision to not do that -- at the cost of not being able to show full-frame pictures." You can't blame him, but exposing a viewer to approximately half of any given painting may pose a larger barrier to the understanding of her work than a slightly awkward still transition.

Not unlike Alice's approach, the scenes Andrew identified as being the most unexpected were ones captured by instinct. "I was trying to show that to the audience in a meaningful emotional way," he said, "but I didn't know that my father..." His voice trails off, recalling the conversation with his father that closes the movie. "Follow your bliss," Hartley Neel utters almost inaudibly, followed by a silence so long most filmmakers would have stopped recording. "Sorry, I can't verbalize everything." Off-camera, Andrew responds, "It's OK; you don't have to."

On its face, "Follow your bliss" is a cliché meant for the cutting room floor. But in those extra seconds lies an exchange revealing the acceptance of a gift Alice Neel spent a lifetime creating for her children and grandchildren -- and the gift they wish to return.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.

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