Monday, August 25, 2014

Collector of Souls

With a career that spanned from the 1920s into the 80s, Alice Neel is widely regarded as one of the greatest figurative painters of the twentieth century. Born on January 28, 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the third of four children, she was raised in a straight-laced middle-class family at a time when expectations and opportunities for women were limited. After graduating from high school, Neel took the Civil Service exam and got a well paid clerical position that helped support her parents. After three years of work and art classes at night, she enrolled in the Fine Art program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921, graduating in 1925.

Still Life, Rose of Sharon, 1973; Whitney Museum, New York

While in art school, Neel met an upper-class Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez and married him in 1924. She eventually moved to Havana to live with her husband’s family and was there embraced by the Cuban avant-garde, a group of young writers, artists and musicians. It was in this environment that Neel developed the foundations of her lifelong political consciousness and commitment to equality.

Pat Whalen, 1935; Whitney Museum

A daughter, Santillana, was born in Havana in December of 1926. The couple returned to New York where one month short of her first birthday, Santillana died of diphtheria. In November of 1928, a second daughter, Isabella Lillian (Isabetta) was born in New York City. Barely two years later, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. Mourning the loss of her husband and daughter, Neel suffered a massive nervous breakdown, was hospitalized, and after a suicide attempt doctors placed her in the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital.

Self Portrait, 1980; National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Released in 1931, Neel moved to New York where for many years she remained poor and unrecognized as an artist. And yet she was a pioneer among American women artists, living a life devoted to her art despite any and all circumstances. For decades she chose her subjects from family, friends, and a wide assortment of local writers, poets, artists, students, textile salesmen, psychologists, cabaret singers, and homeless bohemians, a selection of subjects that was a portrayal of, and dialogue with the city in which she lived. Neel thought of herself as a “collector of souls” and it is clear that she honored those she chose to paint, portraits oftentimes more real than the people themselves, full of restlessness, vulnerability and imperfection. In an interview shortly before her death in 1984 she said, “I could have been a great psychiatrist but it’s more fun being an artist. I see what’s here; I don’t look for anything, I just look…I love to paint people torn to shreds by the rat race of New York.”

Peggy, 1949
Notice the unnaturally lanky arms that stretch out and double back, hands (one open, one curled closed) at rest on either side of the face, fragile but insistent arrows pointing to the cut above one eye, bruises beside the other.

Alice Neel’s obscurity ended when the woman’s movement discovered her in the 1970s and brought a success closely tied to gender equality and feminism. Her portrait of Kate Millet for the August 31, 1970 cover of Time magazine was the result of her new found recognition.

My Mother, 1952; private collection

How does one define the painting of Alice Neel? As realist, expressionist, psychological portraitist, or what? Some might tag her as a social realist but her art is as far removed from social realism as it is from pop. An astute critic may see in the artist’s roots a mixture of the Northern European tradition, New York’s Ashcan School, and American primitive, but there is something about Neel’s art that defies categories. The Art Spirit, a book by the Ashcan School’s Robert Henri was Neel’s bible. Art critic Jeremy Lewison has said that Neel’s realistic approach to the human form at a time of growing abstraction among her contemporaries confirmed her as an outsider. Looking at a collection of Neel’s work the viewer is made to see something fresh, vital, moving, amusing, tender, cruel, mournful, grotesque or sparse. Impressions can be contradictory in the work of Alice Neel, but almost always a visceral experience that plays with the emotions.

Virgil Thompson, 1971

George Arce, a neighborhood boy Neel sketched and painted on several occasions

George Arce, a few years older

Friday, August 8, 2014

Pockets & Watches

Thinking back to what many of us wore to school as kids, blue jeans and white T-shirts were right at the top. Along with a pair of US Keds high-top tennis shoes it was practically an unofficial uniform, making the combination easily the most familiar articles of clothing in the closet and dresser of my boyhood. At the time I never paid much mind to the details of those daily trousers, never thought about the trademark rivets or the button fly, just something I pulled on in the morning and kicked off at night.

I read today in my West Virginia friend’s blog, A Reader’s Life, that she was surprised to discover a lot of people these days don’t know what a watch pocket is. Hey, I’m surprised too. Aren’t many guys out there who still carry a pocketwatch and I have to believe a lot also who didn’t or don’t wear blue jeans. In those days when jeans were a daily custom, I didn’t carry a pocketwatch but I did know that the little pocket in my Levis was made to hold one. I guess, “What’s this little pocket for?” was a question I asked the man in the department store one day. But yeah, I too am surprised that not so many people today know what that little pocket was originally for. 

In the late 1800s cowboys, miners and other outdoor workers often kept a watch on a chain in the pocket of a waistcoat or vest. And then in 1873 Levi Strauss introduced a small pocket designed expressly to hold a pocketwatch. The first blue jeans had four pockets—one in back and two in front with the addition of a small pocket stitched and riveted to the top of the right front pocket. The smaller pocket was included as protection for pocketwatches and thus the name, watch pocket. Since its first appearance this extra pouch-like pocket has had many functions, evident in a few of its other names: frontier pocket, condom pocket, coin pocket, match pocket and ticket pocket. Not surprising that many people today have no real idea of what that little pocket is called or what the Levi Strauss company had in mind when they included it in their denims. 

The thing is, I do have a pocketwatch, but one that hasn’t spent much time in that special little pocket on my blue jeans (Yeah, still wearing them almost every day.) but these days rests in a dish on the coffee table. Not the first time to mention the watch in these pages; it has found space a couple of times in my scribbles about this or that. I got the watch not too many years ago at a secondhand shop in my old Tokyo neighborhood, a conductor’s watch commonly used by drivers and conductors on Japanese trains. The watch has for many years been made by the Japanese watchmaker, Seiko, with upgrades every few years. Mine is one of the 7550 quartz series made in 1978—thirty-six years old and still keeping accurate time. At the time of production, Seiko advertised the watch as having an accuracy within 15 seconds per month. 

Before my head got turned by watches and pockets this morning, I was stopped by the sight of my new and flourishing guacamole tree on the back porch. About a month ago, in the business of making a bowl of guacamole, I cut open an avocado and noticed that the seed was slightly split and with a tiny white root coming out of the bottom end. It was the first time to see that in years and I right away did the old trick of sticking the seed with toothpicks and resting it half in-half out of a glass of water. In two weeks another tiny three roots had grown out and down into the water. At the end of the third week I planted the seed in a pot of soil and put it in a sunny spot near the screen door. Here’s what it looks like today…

In the wild growth of summer my backyard is in some spots an explosion of green. I keep a compost heap for leaf litter, moss and the smaller branches that drop from the oak trees and from the backend of the compost has grown up a wild mix of plants. I can’t identify half the plants and have to wonder what they will grow into. As the picture below shows, the walls of the unpainted enclosure are old and weathered and though it’s hard to see, soon to collapse. The project for next week is to replace those walls.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America