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Like her paintings, Alice Neel’s watercolors and drawings, now showing at David Zwirner, wobble and tilt out of proportion, only more so. Three women seemingly seated next to one another have eyes, hands, and legs of widely varying widths and lengths. The shadows of two men walking along the Bowery seem to rise and lift off the ground. Rather than have the images recede, Neel pushes them all to the forefront of the picture plane. It makes me think of what David Hockney says in reaction to one-point perspective and in defense of ancient Chinese as well as Cubist paintings: that their distorted views of reality impart a sense of closeness.
Such views also avoid imposing a way of looking at a given work, as our eyes, however disoriented, more freely explore the page. This experience is true of Neel’s work spanning from the 1920s to the ’70s, on display here: from her caricature-like watercolors and her German Expressionist-inspired ink drawings to her more formal portraiture. (The earlier works are a small surviving sample; Neel’s partner of the time destroyed more than 300 of her drawings.) As many like to note, she treats her subjects — including bohemian, bourgeois, and working class types — with equal attention. At times, a dingy doorway signals tenement housing or patterned rosy wallpaper describes a comfortable home. But more often the figures appear suspended in blank or minimally delineated spaces so that we are first caught by the figures’ expressions, captured especially in a hand gesture or inward gaze.
Neel painted and drew her subjects in her New York apartments, thereby, as curator Jeremy Lewison notes in his catalogue essay, “divorcing the sitters from their context.” Neel’s homes were themselves mostly unglamorous places — she lived in Spanish Harlem for most of her years in New York. Still, Neel’s home doesn’t figure prominently, but rather makes an appearance in the arm of a chair or the outline of a pillow. One gets the sense in her drawings that only she and her subjects are present. She observes them intensely, and though they appear equally engrossed, their attention is never fully directed at her. Often, they seem to privately exist on the page. This is how Neel depicts her friends and family. And though or perhaps because she had complicated, tumultuous relationships with them — abusive, drug-addicted, uncommitted husbands, and sons and daughters whom she struggled to care for — these are the most arresting and moving portraits. In the works that are more narrative-driven — including a “Support the Union” protest, a hospital scene, and the sight of a mother apparently crying over the dead body of her child — that line of focus between Neel and the sitter is broken. We’ve exited the artist’s home.
Neel’s watercolors and drawings have been noted for being more intimate in character than her paintings, compared even to “diary entries.” But to me the most successful works, just like an accomplished first-person piece of writing, function more as personal narratives. Neel doesn’t self-edit, as a diary writer often does. The subjects here exist so acutely, even forcefully, that it’s hard to believe she would’ve denied any aspect of them, even if ugly or uncomfortable. They take precedence over her. Though there is one self-portrait (a rarity in itself) on view, Neel depicts herself as a raging, living skull that she seems to have lost control over as its bleeding eyes blaze at the viewer. As Vivian Gornick famously said of the personal essay, it may have been Neel’s emotions — what she called a search for “truth” — that drove her to depict her subjects, but the situations of her images lied outside of herself. Neel’s resulting pictures were a product of her persistence but, when at their best, were not entirely in her hands.
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