The short and miserable marriage of the painters Alice Neel and Carlos Enríquez, whichlasted from 1925 to 1930, began and endedlong before either artist had discovered thesignature style that would define their respective careers. Andit was dissolved almost half a century before Neel, nearingeighty, was yanked from obscurity to be hailed as one of the finest Americanfigural painters of the twentieth century.
But the path that each of them took in art as in life, as they entered intomarriage and then as they abandoned it, might serve as an object lesson in thefortuity that dominates art history, and life itself, far more than scholars ofeither are pleased to acknowledge. Neel and Enríquez were both quintessentialbohemians who drifted through existence, liberating themselves with difficultyfrom the hardships that their instabilities incurred, and then moving onto their next fortuitous rendezvous with humanity and the history of art.
A recent and informative exhibition at El Museo del Bario in New York, Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in theModern Metropolis, inadvertently threw light onthe troubled relationship of these two artists. Itdid so in the course of exploring the kineticinteraction that existed between New York andseveral generations of artists who arrived frompoints south of the Rio Grande. The life of Neelwas also revisited recently in a more focusedexhibition entitled Alice Neel: Painted Truths, at theMuseum of Fine Arts in Houston.
One coup of the New York exhibition was the inclusionof two excellent portraits that the artists made ofeach other (see Figs. 2, 3). Neel’s depiction of Enríquez,from 1926, is not only accomplished but also revealswhat attracted her to him in the first place. He appearsbefore us as that glamorous type, the Latin lover, with athin moustache and a slicked-back quiff of blue-blackhair. There is not a great deal of psychological depth tothis compelling work, unless it lies in exploring the youngman’s vanity. Instead Neel is intent on capturing theelusive dash of her husband, so effectively and flatteringlysuggested in the expansive relaxation of his pose.
A year later, in 1927, Enríquez returned thecompliment when he depicted Neel in thenude. Although this painting is not aggressivelygraphic in its rendering of a naked woman—theworks of European contemporaries like Egon Schiele orChristian Schad are far more revealing—this was preciselythe sort of work that got Enríquez into trouble.Several of his early shows in Havana had been disruptedby the authorities, who claimed to be scandalized by hisunflinching depictions of women in the buff. This portrait,however, is infused with an almost homely modestythat finds expression in its subdued register of graysand pinks, with the occasional brown or white highlight.For whatever reasons, Neel’s face is blurred, yet there isthe weight of truth in the matter-of-fact contraposto ofher upper body and in the fullness of her thighs.
It is hard to imagine backgrounds more different thanthose of Alice Neel and Carlos Enríquez. Her humblechildhood was passed in the small town of Colwyn,Pennsylvania, while he was born to wealth in cosmopolitanHavana. They met in Pennsylvania where he wasstudying commerce and she was a secretary by day and an art student by night. After a whirlwind courtship,they married and went to live in Havana, where theywere part of the burgeoning Cuban avant-garde scene.
After a year, however, they moved back to Colwyn,with their newborn daughter, Santillana, and shortlythereafter they moved on to New York. During thisperiod Enríquez’s response to the great modern metropoliswas powerfully communicated in an illustrationcalled Buildings (Edificios) of 1929 (Fig. 5). While it istrue that the towering ziggurats, teeming citizens, andspeeding elevated trains were by then the boilerplate ofmodernity, there is still real feeling in this image. Beforeus stands the world of John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer (1925) and of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926)effectively conveyed in stark charcoal tones by thiswondering wide-eyed immigrant.