Two Alice Neel stories prompted by a new documentary about her.

5/14/07, 01:55 PM
The artist Alice Neel (1900-1985) had a long, difficult, varied career as a really wonderful portrait painter –mostly in and around New York City. She looked into the souls of her sitters, saw the resident conflicts and contradictions that elude most observers –and, clearly, many of the sitters themselves– and served them up as revealing portraits.
I recently saw the movie, made by her grandson, with a small group of friends, at the Cinema Village. The grandson (Andrew?) was there to answer our questions and field comments.

As it turned out, I had an Alice Neel story that few people knew, which I told to the audience:
It is wellknown that much of AN’s early work was destroyed in 1934 by a 3year live-in lover named Ken Doolittle (he is featured in one of her drawings, priapic in tight red longjohns, seated in a passive-aggressive
priapic slump.) Ken burned 50 AN oils & watercolors, and slashed 300 of her drawings.
As we might suspect, this was the end of the relationship. Alice is said to have told KD “why don’t you go and do something with yourself…like… go and fight in the Spanish Civil War.” (Apparently he took up her suggestion.)

Quite when my friend S. –an unreconstructed socialist– met Doolittle
I don’t know: it was probably about 20-30 years later. KD became S’s political mentor, instructing him in the multi-layered intricacies of leftwing politics of the time (before people began apologizing for being leftwing).
I gather they went on frequent walking tours. One such outing took them to Symphony Space in 1962 to hear the famous Gus Hall speak. Gus Hall (1910-2000) for those too young to know, was a fixture on the political scene: union man and labor organizer, he ran four times for President as a representative of the CPUSA!
As KD and S. entered the hall and walked down the aisle looking for a seat, they heard a woman’s voice call out “Ken! Ken Doolittle!” Who was it but Alice Neel. She was inviting them to sit with her, which they did. There was, I gather, not the slightest whiff of recrimination in the air: it was all a lively reminiscence spanning three decades. They listened to Gus Hall and afterwards Alice suggested that they go to Zabars to pick up some fancy vittles after which they repaired to Alice’s apt. on 107th St. for further rehash.
Alice had had a longtime friend, a John Rothchild, who had (recently?) died, and had left a number of expensive wellcut suits with her. At some point in that rehash evening, Alice produced the suits, which (a down-on-his-luck) Ken both approved of and accepted, and I think I am correct in saying that they –A & K– took up a close relationship again. How close is close? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I trust that the eye that Alice kept on her artwork was sufficiently…close.

As it happens, I have another Alice Neel story. An old –and intermittently cranky– but always interesting friend (we will call her V.) once decided that she wanted to commission Alice Neel to paint her portrait in 1983, which she duly did. My friend –who writes very well– produced a small but finely observed and detailed monograph of the encounter. It was to prove the very last portrait that Alice Neel painted (I understand there was to have been another portrait after that, which however did not happen, for reasons of ill health, but I may be wrong on that.)
The portrait of V. showed clearly that an 83 yearold Alice Neel had not lost any of her acuity and wit –and vinegar. (But not over-tart.)
I hope one day to persuade V. to publish (republish?) this interesting monograph for reasons of Art History.


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