If the couple hoped to find happiness in the big city,they were disappointed. In 1927, before her first birthday,Santillana succumbed to diphtheria. One yearlater another child, Isabella Lillian, known as Isabetta,was born. But when the couple could no longer affordto care for her, Enríquez deposited the girl in Havanawith his family, while he left for Paris and Neel remainedalone in the United States. It was during this periodthat Neel attempted suicide. Something of her moodis communicated in a strange image of Isabetta from1930: Neel portrays her daughter as a willful, almostpossessed infant clutching at a stuffed animal (Fig. 4).As in her early depiction of Enríquez, this portrait ofIsabetta attests to Neel’s rare ability to seize on elusivemental states. But unlike her later and more typicalworks, it is strangely lacking in that vast and seeminglyirrepressible sympathy for humanity in generaland in specific—that instant and electric arc of connectionbetween portraitist and subject—that was tobe the defining triumph of Neel’s art. This potentlydyspeptic image surely had more to do with the artist’sfragile state of mind at the time than with anything inthe child’s actual character. Only a few years later, thesame girl reappears as a being of radiant loveliness inEnríquez’s far more conventional portrait of 1934 (Fig.6), the force of which derives from the dark and energeticlines that define her contours and details.
Once they parted ways Neel and Enríquez chose verydifferent paths, both in their lives and in their art. For theremainder of his life, until his death in 1957, Enríquezlived in Havana where he made a career in literature aswell as in painting. The style he developed was very different in spirit and form from what he was making duringhis time with Neel. Rejecting both the realism of his nudeportrait of her and the machine aesthetic that dominatedhis images of New York, Enríquez surrendered completelyto a surrealist notion of subject matter and form.In a work like Ritual Cleansing (Fig. 10) or in his depictionof the Cuban patriot José Martí (1853–1895), he developsa more fluid and dreamlike style, rich in historical associationsand improvised mythology. The incessant movementand all-over patterning recall the work of RobertoMatta (1911–2002), another eminent Latin Americanartist of the time. And as with the more abstract Matta,in viewing Enríquez’s dazzle and brilliance, one cannever quite dispel a sense oftextural insufficiency and ofambitious compositions thathave slipped out of control.
In Neel, whose mastery onlygrew as she aged, one neversenses this insufficiency.After splitting from Enríquez shebecame romantically involved withJosé Negron Santiago, a PuertoRican nightclub singer whom shemet in 1935 and with whom, soonafterwards, she had a son, Richard (1939–). A somewhatweak and cartoonish pastel from this time, Alice and José (Fig. 7), depicts the couple in bed together. But the realartistic consequence of her involvement with Santiago,who left her in 1939, is that it prompted her to move toSpanish Harlem. There, swept up in the leftist politicsof the time, she began to explore in earnest the portraitstyle that she would develop throughout the remainderof her life with ever increasing skill and inspiration. Agood example is The Spanish Family (Fig. 8), a spiritedand weighty portrait that reveals her typically improvisationalsense of what works visually. It also suggests herkeen and instantaneous grasp of the essential humannessof her sitters, whether an adult, like the mother in thisportrait, or the two children who flank her, or the infantin her arms.
The essential ingredients of the typical Neel portraitare present here, as indeed they were alreadypresent in the portrait of Isabetta from 1930: theimprovised expressionistic incongruities of figureand face, the wobbly linearity, the knotted clustersof pigment. Indeed, from her earliest portraits ofEnríquez in the 1920s, to thoseshe would produce at the adventof the 1980s, the genetic templateof her art is found in relentlessmodifications and reinventionsof the Ashcan school portraitsof Robert Henri and GeorgeBellows, whose influencereigned in the art schools ofher youth. That said, onedetects in her dark, heavySpanish Harlem portraitsof the 1930s a little bit ofthat resistance to charmand wit that marks theworks of Ben Shahn andthe Soyer brothers (whomshe memorably depictedin 1973).
And yet, in the remarkablecareer of Alice Neel, fewthings are more remarkable than her ability to constantlyreinvent herself—indeed, to reinvent herself ineach portrait—with such Mozartean fertility and easethat her works from the 1970s and early 1980s (fromher seventies and early eighties) could fairly pass, stylisticallyno less than contextually, as the defining artisticdocuments of those years. In an explosion of creativityshe seems to have depicted anyone of interest who livedsouth of Fourteenth Street during these years, fromdrifters and mechanics to Ed Koch, Allen Ginsberg,Linda Nochlin, and many more. As her daughter-in-law Nancy Neel later remembered: “Alice lovedinteresting people, poetic people, intellectualpeople, out-of-the ordinary people, ones whowere down on their luck.” It was in this spiritthat Neel liked to describe herself as a “collectorof souls.”*
Since antiquity it has been a platitude ofcriticism to claim that a given portraithas captured the sitter’s soul. But in thecase of Alice Neel, the sitter’s essential personhoodtranspires with such immediacy—eventhrough all the expressionistic distortions—thatthe cliché has been given new life. Considerjust one portrait chosen arbitrarily from amonghundreds: the depiction of her son Hartley(Fig. 9). By 1966, when it was made, Hartleywas a young man in his twenties. To be surewe see but one side of his character, a willfulnesscombined, it seems, with a mix of condescensionand indulgence towards his equallyheadstrong mother. The instinctive humanidentification that informed The Spanish Family can surely be found here as well. But alliedto it is a new technical mastery, a joyous fecundity ofvisual ideas that expresses itself in Neel’s depiction ofthe young man’s t-shirt, as well as the deft outline ofhis raised arms, a linear refinement that has hardly beensurpassed by any American artist.
Though it is, of course, presumptuous to generalizeabout such matters, one discerns a connection betweenNeel’s artistic triumph and her personal travails. Probablylike Enríquez, she appears not to have been meantfor monogamy. What defines the greatness of her art,more even than its painterly brilliance, is an intuitivespontaneous and well-nigh infallible ability to seize onthe human beauty and complexity of anyone, everyone,whose path crossed hers. The world is a crowded andvariegated place, and her prodigious capacity for connectingwith other human beings may well have renderedher incapable of limiting herself to any one of them.
This incessant mutability, and the breathless excellenceit occasioned, are perhaps the only important constantsin the art—and in the life—of Alice Neel.
* Quoted in Stephen May, “Alice Neel at the Philadelphia Museum ofArt,” Antiques and the Arts Weekly, March 13, 2001.
JAMES GARDNER is an art and architecture critic who contributes frequently to Antiques.