The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s mission is partly to highlight the achievements of artists who have been historically marginalized in the mainstream art world on the basis of race or gender. Benny Andrews, Alice Neel and Bob Thompson, the gallery’s current exhibition, carries out the institution’s objective with quiet diligence.
Most of the paintings on view were completed in the latter part of the twentieth century. What the artists in this show have in common is a commitment to paint the people in their lives. To look at these faces and the bodies on view is to see men and women who “lead lives of quiet desperation,” toiling on the moldy rim of society. The most engaging work balances realist representation and expressionism.
I commend the gallery’s thoughtful installation. They do not isolate the individual artists to separate wall space or rooms, but hang their work side by side, in shared space. The decision to pair the artists’ works allows for thoughtful comparison and reflection. Though the installation is dynamic, I really tuned into each artists depiction of people.
In Alice Neel’s “Rachel Zurer” (1961—62), the subject sits upright in a comfy old chair. She wears a modest, patterned housedress, which reveals a pair of soft, buttery arms. Her languid pose brings to mind conversation between intimates more than a formal sitting between artist and model. A small crinkle in her lips suggests the beginnings of a smile. The background, painted in animated strokes, operates as a goopy blue halo around the sitter’s head. Unlike the straightforward depiction of face, the background relies less on clear-cut depiction, and more on feeling or expression. The colors appear unnatural and not tied to direct observation. The deliberate tension between pictorial realism and expressionism keeps the viewer off-balance, uneasy. I like this Rachel. I feel as if I know this person. I want to poke her jangly turkey neck.
A solitary woman trudges down a stark country path in Benny Andrews’s painting “Down the Road” (1971). Her only companion is a long, black shadow. The image is as rough as the subject’s burlap dress, which conceals large pendulous breasts. Just over her shoulder, a patchwork of wooden shacks and utility poles recede in the distance, wilting under hot daylight. What makes this painting distinctive is the woman’s nose, which juts out from the canvas like a fetid, cantankerous growth. The effect is startling. Andrews developed a rough collage technique, which married rugged scraps of cloth and paint to canvas.
Bob Thompson does not depict himself painting in “Self Portrait in the Studio” (1960), but sitting in a threadbare chair in a small gray room. He is shirtless, and his eyes are closed. (Is he sleeping, listening to music, or on the nod?) In the background, just behind him, rests a set of drums, a stack of large, abstract paintings and radio. The studio as man-cave or hideout. It’s resident artist, a slumbering giant. I feel as though I know Bob and the other bug-eyed people, with their tobacco-stained teeth, who are covered in sweat and grime. As I look at these subjects on view, I consider my own body and its steady decline. The creaky limbs, the patches of dry skin in odd places, the unfortunate hair sprouts.
Andrews, Neel and Thompson paint the way I feel: broken-down, pieced together and slightly unhinged. It’s humanity as grotesque smorgasbord — eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, flat feet and bad teeth. I love the way they use paint. It is applied to the canvas like a kid smearing a slab of butter on toast. The appearance is as unsophisticated as the imagery is stark and uncompromising. The people we see are not easy on the eyes. An existential dread looms like thunder storms in summer.
Benny Andrews, Alice Neel, Bob Thompson is on view at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (24 West 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) until April 7.