In Memory of Alice Neel (1900-1984)

 

Mural in Spanish Harlem Alice Neel painter
Mural in Spanish Harlem

 

When Lydia says that all police procedural dramas these days boil down to a policewoman determined to separate her estranged daughter from the older, violent criminal she’s fallen in love with, she means Frank. He’s the bad guy here. He’s with her daughter Pearl now, and though he is older, it is in years only and not by way of any wisdom quotient.

She won’t admit it but Frank suspects that for Lydia all speech is subtext more or less skillfully planted. If she’s not presenting the plot of a prime time television show as a sublimation of her disapproval of his mannerisms, she’s drawing on identity politics to uncenter him. This morning she spoke from across the kitchen island on varieties of invective in Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’ and Swift’s ‘Dear John’ as if to question his ability to love a woman artist. When he complains to Pearl that her mother is at it again, she reinterprets the songs as Lydia’s invitation into an intellectual conversation about them. Her main goal in life, after all, is to find one good thing about everyone.

Unconvinced he’s welcome, Frank doesn’t go with Pearl and her mother to the Alice Neel retrospective one Saturday afternoon in August. In their absence, he imagines Pearl alone with Lydia in a crowded entrance, where they don’t speak but look at each other as they move with the others toward the turnstiles. Afterwards, Pearl will tell Frank about the obscure life of Georgie Arce, a boy from Spanish Harlem, who Neel painted at least once in 1953.

If the meaning of the shape holds without Neel here to explain it, a Christlike pose shows Lydia and Pearl a tuberculosis patient dying for the sins of every passerby whose seeing can’t be mistaken. Next, the 1936 painting “Nazis Murder Jews” depicts an anti-Fascist May Day parade in New York City. This is followed by Dachau survivors, German refugees, and a Jewish editor known to the artist and her writer friends. She does many portraits. Some are curators and art historians. Some are new immigrants and others are migrants moving within the national borders and out from places, Pearl speculates, like the Jim Crow South. ‘Sad communities burgeon,’ she whispers in her mother’s ear, ‘the more in the open we visit.’ She’s not sure what she means by this, so they shelve it for the time being.

Lydia remains convinced that one of the more interesting cop shows you’ll find out there explores the ways a policewoman and her daughter work out their love for each other using other relationships as their proxies. This sounds wrong to Frank. “You haven’t watched enough of them,” Lydia explains from across the kitchen island. From the next room over, Pearl searches for the name of the boy seen in the Neel painting. Because his story is one of crime, she’s surprised some upstart producer, cashing in on the art of reenactment, hasn’t turned it into a hit series.

In 1973, among faces of gay liberation, Neel paints the poet Adrienne Rich with whom she argues what’s right feminism. She paints Jackie Curtis who models for Andy Warhol, and Ritta Red, a drag queen. Though the famous may fail in one’s memory, Mother Bloor is here too, and Kenneth Fearing is in an adjacent gallery. Neel paints aspects of the avant garde of her time with the conventionally salaried among them. She does not leave out mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Though she is known for this kind of work, the word ‘portrait’ makes her squeamish the way words like moist and phlegm make others squirm. But it isn’t bodily for Neel: she calls portraits ‘pictures of people’ because the term ‘portraiture’ belongs to an elite class unlike a billion selfies ever can.

But Neel’s favorite thing to paint is the nude. Who but the freest can imagine sitting naked for Neel before she’s talked them into it? We talk ourselves and others into all sorts of things. Pearl asks, ‘Would you sit nude for Alice Neel, Mother?’ Lydia may not ask the same question back because she’s afraid of the answer. Thus, Neel uses the female form to confront viewers with the physicality of motherhood, as many of her nudes are pregnant.

One day the young Georgie Arce enters the artist’s yard to say, “Ms. Neel, can I play with your boxer?” Of course he can. Anytime he wants. So he and the lady artist become friends, and this simple connection, whether or not Pearl can articulate the oceanic feeling it gives her, reaches into the 21st century. “They met when they had their whole lives ahead of them,” says Pearl “and now they’re gone, and I am alive, Frank.” He can’t resist saying, “Thanks for stating the obvious.”

But her most famous nude is the self-portrait she paints when she is an old woman close to death. With her spine erect and her eyeglasses pushed up to the bridge of her nose, she sits in a tub chair or loveseat holding a paintbrush as if poised to make a mark. She dabs with silver perhaps, if she dabs, as if to touch up her hair gathered at arm’s reach into a bun. She recreates her belly resting in her lap, her breasts resting, and the way she sits, her legs to hide her genitalia. If her skin shows a blueness like flowering bluets beneath, her flesh is mostly pale and loose with some roseate shades and ruddiness to mark not only the worldview of a satisfied woman but also a flushness at the sight of her own body coming into view under her own hand. Alice Neel gives herself her discerning look in perpetuity.

Neel calls Georgie’s intelligence penetrating while helping him to harbor the terrible secret that he is illiterate. With so many students and their needs, how can a teacher focus on a single child? It’s Pearl who focuses now, standing back from him in the gallery. He wears maroon trousers, a light blue jacket, and a white shirt. His ankle boots bespeak dandiness about him, as do bright socks, and though it may not be a pompadour he’s wearing, a tamer version of one adds to the precocity of his look. Pearl calls his gaze discerning like an artist’s, but too grown up, and hates to see any young person acting seductive. But she may be wrong about this. It’s a lot to take from a picture after only a few minutes, and she’s never read body language very well and never faces. But Neel does say somewhere that the boy, early on, absorbed an ethos that makes having money the one true thing for being alive in America. Soon he’s mixing with gangsters in the city and living with them in Attica, and soon Frank is asking from across the kitchen island, “Was it robbery or something?”

Frank has a crime story of his own to tell, known to him as The Story of the Mole. Not the animal or a growth on your skin but a person posing as a cop to burrow with eyes unseen deep into a humane precinct, now everyone must scrutinize everyone to see where the leaks are coming from. Once the mole is identified, one person after another steps forward to ask him why he takes so naturally to the secret infiltration of a community built on trust. To this moral question he replies but not until he’s chosen his words carefully: “I am an outcast based on no evidence except how I feel about myself.” Lydia and Pearl laugh their shared laugh together, so beautiful to see and hear that even Frank laughs.

Later, in bed, amid the regular flow of pillow talk, he tells Pearl she’s beautiful and, predicting his insomnia will last through the night, he apologizes for carrying on so foolishly with Lydia. Because Pearl hadn’t noticed him playing a fool, they collaborate in the defamiliarization of falling asleep as reaching a tipping point into blackness with light at times blowing around like curtains. Tossing and turning and getting up a few times to pace while Pearl sleeps, Frank vows to join her when he’s ready. He takes a step back. They step back together to behold their own bodies, their legs splayed, their heads and sheets jutting in opposite directions, their chests rising and falling. To the sound of their breathing, almost imperceptible, the moon passes through a tall, slender window.