Hilton Als on Alice Neel
Excerpted from Alice Neel, Uptown by Hilton Als,
a forthcoming title from David Zwirner Books (June 2017)
Carmen and Judy, 1972
In her beautiful, hard, and certain essay, “The Love of God and Affliction,” the religious philosopher Simone Weil said: “The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction. It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, driven from their country, made destitute or reduced to slavery, imprisoned in camps or cells, since there are criminals to perform such actions.” I am certain that Alice Neel, more than many an American artist, had a deep understanding of affliction. She did not use her work to escape it, but rather to plunge further into it—into the trauma of being despised, or forsaken. Indeed, if she had any credo as an artist, it was to show us ourselves, and herself, even when (or especially when) it was dangerous and hard to do so. Neel lived through two world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War; she saw dictators rise and fall, and empires clash with their colonies. She knew that the first mark of being political was looking: seeing what was done to others in this world, and how the afflicted became afflicted, or what nowadays we might call the disenfranchised. Neel experienced affliction herself, first hand. She lost two girls, her eldest children—one by kidnapping, essentially, and so saw the criminal at work in her personal life. What might have felled a person with lesser capabilities (and did harm Neel; in 1930, she suffered a nervous breakdown) went into the work.
Neel had art—her outlet—and the discipline of education on her side. Yet she was ambivalent about the opportunities she had because of race and class. When others describe her psychological difficulties—her proclivity for troubled partners and so on—it strikes me that it was her way of paying for what she felt was an overabundance of privilege. If she was stripped of it by feckless lovers and the like, she would be more real. Pain would be her portion; it would neutralize her tremendous gifts and make her more like other people, other women. Weil says, though, that affliction is different than pain or humiliation. Affliction, she writes, “is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or the immediate apprehension of physical pain.” To live with fear, and the possibility of being annihilated at the hands of someone you have welcomed into your home, is a devastating thing—you must fight to be yourself, have yourself, let alone have the love of the people you cherish most, your children.
In Phoebe Hoban’s 2010 Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty one is struck again and again by the biographer’s question: Why? Why did Neel make this choice when she could have made another? I think Neel, like many powerful women, was conflicted: power was the province of men. Yet she wanted power for herself. Did that make her less a woman, to be this person who could make a world by marrying her consciousness to someone else’s unconscious? (To be the subject of a painting, to pose, is to delve deep into one’s unconscious; sitting encourages that, especially if the painter isn’t a chatterbox.) What was a woman? Someone who withstood maleness with great forbearance? Or was turned by its unutterable difference—the right to be violent, to act out, to take what was his. Maleness as an idea, let alone a reality, is all pervasive. I have heard women of great intelligence and imagination mention their husbands before they say anything about themselves at all. I have loved boys whose mothers put their self-dramatization before their sons, and expected those boys to love me. I have had a mother who shared her hard-earned money with a father who didn’t work and who, in fact, lived with (and to some extent off of) his own mother. I have had female siblings who condoned—by not criticizing—male relatives who dangled my boy self off balconies, and put plastic bags over my head. And then I grew up, sort of, and slept with older men who were not there, because of drink or other partners. This was what I did and what I knew and what I searched for: a kind of slightly absent authority, a protector who didn’t protect, who kept the world away from me with a sharp word. I felt shipwrecked on a stony, barren island that I confused with love, because the love I knew was an out-of-control maleness—the theater of maleness that came in, dominated the scene, and then exited, stage left. Neel would have understood all that, and the aspects of her biography that are difficult for others to accept have shown up in any relationship any of us has had, if you are dealing with maleness, or the idea of it.
The point is that Neel understood Carmen and Judy. Carmen, a Haitian cleaning woman, took care of Neel’s home and babysat for her daughter-in-law, Nancy. (My mother also supported herself, at times, by cleaning and babysitting.) With the beatific look on Carmen’s face—the look of the afflicted who feel it is morally offensive to show the world their affliction—she shows herself to Neel, as her mentally challenged child looks up at that figure she cannot help but love. There is not one of us who has not been Judy—life has harmed us, injured the brain and heart, and yet there is the softness of the woman who holds us. As she does so, we imagine she holds up the world too. Judy’s pudendum, Carmen’s breast: these are targets that men zero in on—in many, many paintings and books, and in life—to establish their sovereignty. But what if you took that guy out of the picture? What if the conversation was between two women who shared, to some degree, a domestic space and who shared, to some degree, a different but still-intense interest in the child? That’s what Neel depicts in this painting too: the private space of women talking to each other about their bodies, and their female children’s bodies.
Neel has the power to make us all feel less lonely in whatever roles—male and female, black and white, the powerful and the afflicted—nature and society have given us (or have tried to, at least). One sees, in Judy, Neel’s curiosity about the two girl children she didn’t get to raise; had her first baby, Santillana, lived past infancy, and had Isabetta not been taken from her, would she have been a different mother? The ghosts of her girl children are in this painting, made in 1972, when Neel was herself in her seventies. It took that long for her subjects here to present themselves to her, but understanding only comes when we understand. I didn’t understand Carmen and Judy until I remembered what the world was like after he left, whoever he was, or whatever we called him: Papa, husband, whatever. The kitchen was filled with women and children who were not looked after or protected, except by one another. That’s the thing about Neel—you really have to search your own shit, your own past, in order to glean what she was doing. My past is my past, but I borrow from Carmen and Judy to remember the glory in it, borne in part of my desire to survive affliction with the grace Weil describes, which is just another word for God. In the months since I’ve been looking at Carmen and Judy again, I find myself wading out past that barren island and into other waters, warm and loving, but frightening too, because of that very thing—the love that one can find, looking past the wreckage.
Building in Harlem, ca. 1945
There was no portrait that day, but there would be paint. There was no agony of expression to observe that day, but there would be paint. No twisted or joyful limb, no trinity of girls with mourning eyes to draw that day, but there would be paint. Maybe she saw the building from, or near, her building, which was on East 108th Street. It was 1945 or so. The only thing we can report with any degree of accuracy at all is the year Building in Harlem was painted, and where the apartments were—uptown, in Harlem. All else is conjecture. She was a portraitist down to her bones. So when she saw the building, maybe she saw a face; the building tilts a little, like a human head in repose. It sags a little, too, maybe reflecting the spiritual weight of its inhabitants—colored people, mostly, or most likely, given that it was Harlem during the war, or right after. Many of the colored people Alice Neel lived near in Spanish Harlem were Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Dominican, all hoping for a better day amidst old ways—the old colonial ways from back home, centuries before, when the Spanish had colonized them, given them a different tongue, thus removing them further from their African ways and Indian roots. Now, tree roots are trying to break through the concrete in East Harlem—the very same pavement the Latin boys are standing on in their sneakers in Building in Harlem—just guys shooting the shit under clouds that don’t overwhelm the image, but help make it.
During the course of her productive, complicated, and free life, Alice Neel made many portraits. Sometimes they were in words, such as this poem, which further articulates the love she had for place, faces, the spiritual body within the body:
I love you Harlem
Your life your frequent
Women, your relief lines
Outside the bank, full
Of women who no dress
In Saks 5th Ave would
Fit, teeth missing, weary,
Out of shape, little black
Arms around their necks
Cling to their skirts
All the wear and worry
Of struggle on their faces
What a treasure of goodness
And life shambles
Thru the streets
Charged the most, given
I love you for electing
Marcaronio, and for him being what he is
And for the rich deep vein
Of human feeling buried
Under your fire engines,
Your poverty and your loves
Harlem was her home. There was struggle, but goodness in the struggle, and there was poverty and love, too. As a single mother of two trying to make ends meet, she recognized the struggle on her neighbors’ faces, because children clung to her skirts, wrapped their arms around her neck as well. She was needed and was needy. She would not wait to see if it was “appropriate” to diversify or not—to be part of a community that was not supposed to be her own, as a white woman, an educated girl from Pennsylvania who had all sorts of chances, but so few chances, too. No matter what, she was a woman—she would just do it. Because East Harlem was what she felt like, or identified with, no matter what she looked like. Alice Neel knew the difference between self-presentation—the self one showed to the world, or the self the world saw first and inevitably judged, based on skin color, sex, whatever—and what the soul looked like to itself. And, on some level, Alice Neel’s soul saw itself in East Harlem, where struggle contributed to the making of faces, along with goodness, while all that life shambled through the streets.
Building in Harlem is a vertical picture. The image rises up just as hope rises up. Had Alice Neel wanted to make a different picture—a picture of urban despair, say—she wouldn’t have painted that sky, or those socially engaged boys. She would have focused on that sagging building, an emblem of difference housing difference. But she always pulled back from the predictable, if she even knew what that was: the East Harlem she saw and lived in for forty years, and raised a family in, was not, to her eye and heart, a sociological problem, a valley of statistics filled with the dispossessed. Instead, it was a place filled, at times, with light, sky, street-corner jive, buildings as haunted and full as the people she sought to paint in her portraits—those portraits she would get back to tomorrow after she finished building Building in Harlem, which has a face of its own.