'Alice Neel does not need my encomium. Her work declares an appetite for experience, has a patent and shaming honesty, is indifferent to rules and hierarchies. There is no: "Look mummy, I am thinking," but she is very intelligent. She has courage, not least in her choice of sitters; it seems that, the more stressful the sitting, the better the painting. As I get older I feel, increasingly and dauntingly, that artists have to be heroes. Alice Neel is one of mine.'
Frank Auerbach quoted in Alice Neel: Painted Truths, exh. cat., The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2010, p.93.
Born in 1900, Neel spent more than half a century painting expressionistic portraits of extraordinary emotional depth. In the 1960s she moved from Spanish Harlem to the Upper West Side where she befriended and painted several major players in the New York art scene, including Andy Warhol (fig. 1). While at this stage Neel's work finally began to gain prominence, critics tended to overlook her technical skills as a painter, instead focusing on her colourful character and personal life. As with most of Neel's highly accomplished portraits, Susan Rossen is a work which to contemporary critics seemed conventional alongside the omnipresent styles of Abstract Expressionism and Pop, but which over time and upon closer examination has revealed itself as an expression of technical mastery and psychological depth.
While ostensibly a realist, Neel rejected academic exactitude and photographic likeness, never resting on straightforward reportage of the sitter's appearance. Instead she transformed her figures through expressive brushwork and an almost Mannerist distortion or caricature, to achieve a vivid depiction of her sitter's inner psychology. Her subjects' countenances are painted in vivid hues, their heads are too large for their bodies, their limbs are lengthened, and their poses are distorted all in the service of garnering a sense of their inner being. Neel preferred painting her subjects off centre, the angle of their forms creating dynamic movement across the picture plane. In the present work, the figure is restricted within a chair, a motif which recurs frequently in Neel's work, her body creating an S curve. Her head is slightly cocked and her face is not symmetrical, one eye seems more piercing then the other. This dominance of one eye has its roots in the teachings of Robert Henri. Henri was a leading figure in the Ashcan School and an accomplished portraitist, and was a teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which Neel attended.
Neel was drawn to portraiture as a form of 'writing history' as she felt that her portrayal of those individuals that peopled her world 'embodied the character of an era' (quoted in Pamela Allara, Pictures of People: Alice Neel's American Portrait Gallery, 1998, pp.203 and 5). While she sometimes painted from memory, Neel typically worked directly before her subjects, engaging them in conversation as she worked to unflinchingly document their appearance, blending literal likeness with her highly stylized approach. Neel's works are inscribed with her multiple reactions and perceptions from each sitting and she claimed that while painting she: 'becomes 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' (quoted in Judith Higgins, 'Alice Neel and the Human Comedy', Art News, vol. 83 no. 8, October 1984, p.78).
Neel's mastery lies in her ability to uncover and lay bare for the viewer those thoughts, desires and vulnerabilities which individuals are naturally inclined to shield from onlookers. In the present work, the sitter's face is impassive, yet there is the slightest suggestion of a smile in the subtle curling of her lips. While her slightly slouched pose appears relaxed, her hands are awkward, her right fist is clenched and her left forearm is unnaturally thin and stretched. Neel hints at underlying emotional depths and the viewer, confronted by the figure's stare, cannot escape this encounter.
The sitter for the present work, Susan Rossen, was introduced to the artist in 1975 by Stewart Mott, another of Neel's subjects whom she had painted in 1961. Rossen vividly recalls the first meeting as Neel 'fell in love with my outfit - I was wearing a burgundy hat and matching coat and she immediately asked if she could paint me. By the time we arranged the sitting in 1976, sadly my coat had been stolen but I still had the hat and she was very excited about that hat!' (Susan Rossen, 2010). Rossen spent a week with Neel at her New York studio and at the same time, the Public Broadcasting System filmed a documentary about the artist which features the present work in progress. The final portrait sits within a prominent group of works from the 1970s when Neel painted several notable female artists, writers and intellectuals, including art historian Linda Nochlin (fig. 2), writer Adrienne Rich and playwright Alice Childress. A pioneer in the field of museum publications, Rossen founded the first Publications department at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She went on to become the Executive Director of Publications at the Art Institute of Chicago and has been instrumental in highlighting the importance of museum publishing and establishing it as a specialist field. Serving the Art Institute of Chicago from 1981 through to 2009, Rossen propelled hundreds of publications into print and received multiple industry awards.
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