“He had a rubber knife and used to pretend to cut my throat. This was just fun and games. He once said to me, “I don’t like to play.” He was a desperate little character, but why shouldn’t he have been desperate? When I lived in Spanish Harlem there were no Spanish teachers in those school and Spanish culture was completely suppressed.”
Alice Neel’s portraiture is acutely focused and psychologically charged. She skillfully reduces her subjects to their bare identities and infuses each sitter with inspiration from her own life. This is perfectly exemplified with Neel’s arresting canvas, Georgie Arce No. 2
. Georgie (full name Jorge Arce) was a neighbor of Neel’s in Spanish Harlem, a boy on whom she would rely to run errands. Georgie is one of Neel’s most important subjects, having sat for the artist on numerous occasions throughout the 1950s. Rendered with Neel’s characteristic mix of deft brushwork interspersed with looser, painterly lines, young Georgie Arce emerges both embedded in, and momentarily pulled away from his surroundings. In the earlier works, Georgie is portrayed as sweet and angelic, but as time progresses, his demeanor becomes tense and guarded, his eyebrows furrowed and his posture increasingly closed off. In the present work, Georgie is captured during this very moment of metamorphosis—a boy on the cusp of adolescence. There is a palpable tension, a certain unease in Georgie’s full-on gaze into the eyes of the viewer. The toy knife he halfheartedly brandishes ironically foreshadows Georgie’s future misfortunes: in 1974, he was charged and ultimately convicted on two counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. Neel’s 1955 painting memorializes Georgie before this transition from doting neighbor to brooding teenager. That she was able to sense Georgie’s mischievous nature and counterbalance it with his youth is a testament to her unique skill in capturing the subtleties of nuance.
For Neel, “painting portraits was a form of ‘writing history’ and of recording the data of a recognizable moment in time. For her, portraits not only captured body, posture and physiognomy of individuals; they ‘embodied the character of an era’” (Tamar Garb in Exh. Cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Alice Neel: Painted Truths, 2010, p. 24). As with Georgie Arce No. 2, her Spanish Harlem portraits “provide a picture of the vulnerable minority populace of women and children,” a subject which at the time was largely outside the purview of artists as accomplished as Neel (Pamela Allara, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s American Portrait Gallery, Hanover 2000, p. 145). In recent years, Neel has received just due for her willingness to skirt artistic and societal convention by painting those often overlooked by society, and in a manner wholly her own: capturing them in compromising or unresolved states, thereby exemplifying the artist’s ability to narrow the distance between sitter, artist and audience.