Alice Neel, like a cinematic auteur, collected throughout her career as a painter, a cast of recurring characters: friends, family, lovers, poets, artists, and strangers. Her expressionist portraits, like those of the New Objectivity painters of the Weimer Republic, exaggerate the sitters' features, often to comical or cruel effect. But Neel's portraits can also suggest extreme tenderness, generosity, and cultural understanding, depicting, "her belief that an individual's body, posture, and physiogamy not only revealed personal idiosyncrasies, but embodied the character of an era," (Hilary Robinson, . Feminism-art-theory: an Anthology, 1968-2000, Malden, 2001. p. 281).
The present works come from the collection of David and Sondra Brody, the respective son and widow of Neel's lover' Sam Brody, a Communist intellectual. Neel paints the Brody family with an even greater degree of intimacy and psychological understanding than her other subjects. Neel, explaining her artistic practice, says: "I became the person for a couple of hours, so when they leave and I am finished, I feel disoriented. I have no self. I don't belong anywhere. I don't know who or what I am. It's terrible, this feeling, but it just comes because of this powerful identification I make with the person" (Alice Neel and Jeremy Lewison, Alice Neel: Painted Truths, Houston, 2010, p. 51). Neel's ability to inhabit her subjects, especially those with whom she was close, is uncanny, and the present portraits are undeniable testaments to empathy.
Alice Neel first painted David Brody when he was four or five years old. Even as an infant he was thin; his build fascinated Neel and encouraged her to exaggerate his half-elegant, half-awkward mannerisms. The present work, painted in the summer of 1968 when David was ten years-old, shows him in convalescence, recovering from a major, live-saving kidney operation. Sondra suspects that the amorphous, blue shadow looming behind the green chair in which David sits is meant to indicate the presence of Sam, hovering, always-protective, a "force to be reckoned with," who altered the air of any room he walked into. David's hand, skeletal and contorted, was a famous Brody trait, and Neel's depiction serves as a sort of clue to familial inheritance. David remembers sitting for the portrait in Neel's 107th Street flat that overlooked Amsterdam Avenue and that the multiple-day process was "grueling." Though only a small boy, David's eyes – deep-set, liquid, probing – along with his crossed legs, indicated a precocity and haunting sadness at odds with his youth.
So important was the subject to Neel, she painted a second, nearly identical portrait, not long after the present original version (See Christie's, New York, May 12, 2010, lot 169: Sold for $782,500).
Whereas the portrait of David features a lime green chair and an inky blue sweater, more somber, Goya-esque hues are deployed in the other works. In the portrait of Abraham Brody, Neel has used a green background so dark it appears almost black. Unlike other portraits of the elderly by Alice Neel, here Abraham's wrinkles are rendered sympathetically, as if to show experience rather than exhaustion. In other portraits, probably of subjects to which she was not as close, Neel makes old age into something grotesque, each brushstroke seeped with a morbid disgust. Here, however, Abraham appears the dignified patriarch, worthy of commemoration and indulgent of Neel's attention. His hands – one at the knee, the other resting near his face – are thin and articulated in the same way as David's, a loving detail that joins the generations.
Though not human portraits, the remaining two paintings – the still life and the cat – are rendered in Neel's recognizable style: rich black lines separate vivid colors, traces of abstraction remain in even the most figurative of elements. The still life in particular showcases Neel's talent as a colorist. The pigments are saturated and almost eatable: blossoms are the color of an overripe peach; the olive and plum stripes in the background appear almost bruised. Cross-hatching, curlicues, primitive figures – all drawn in black – add a graphic dimension to an otherwise domestic composition. As for the other work, it's difficult to view the cat, resting in the foreground of a lush, green canvas, and not be reminded of the portrait of David, resting in a chair of precisely the same color. Even the feline's pale eyes double David's own. The present corpus, it appears, contains repetitive patterns – tones, motifs, and indications of acumen are recapitulated within each work.
All of Neel's paintings – regardless of subject matter – exist as artifacts from a consistent universe. With just a little imagination, one could envision a sort of muralistic enjambing in which David and Abraham sit side-by-side, the cat at their feet, this vase of flowers ornamenting a nearby table. Neel's rare gift is her ability to grant subjects their humanity while simultaneously capturing their essence for her own work.
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