Grandson's portrait of painter keeps her mystery intact
Threads of familial frustration twine through "Alice Neel," a documentary about the fractious painter of soulful, expressionistic portraits. Her grandson Andrew Neel made the film in an apparent effort to make sense of a legacy of creativity and hurt.
The story of Neel's art is just one puzzle piece in this biography, which vividly portrays the artist as tough and tenaciously anti-Establishment, yet ultimately hungering for (and finally, in her 70s, achieving) widespread recognition from the art world. Born with the 20th century, she died in 1984.
Andrew Neel splices old footage of interviews with his grandmother alongside his own talks with her sons, other family members, scholars, and friends. On camera, the artist comes across as sweet and benign; in the 1970s she appeared on "The Tonight Show" and charmed Johnny Carson.
Yet both her sons, while declaring their devotion to her, often bristle. Because of their single mother's choices to be an artist and not to partake in New York's art community in Greenwich Village, but instead live in Spanish Harlem, she consigned them to a childhood of poverty.
"I was hurt by Bohemian culture," bitterly reflects Richard Neel, the filmmaker's uncle. Richard grew up to become a lawyer; his younger brother, Hartley, became a doctor.
Getting food on the table wasn't their only problem. Neel's life story brims with intrigue, violence, loss, and suffering, and Andrew Neel appears to have chased down every shred of it, from abusive relationships to Alice's abandoning another child, her daughter, Isabetta, whom she left with the child's paternal grandparents in Cuba. In the film, Andrew finds Isabetta's children in Miami and learns her mournful story.
Through it all, the artist stayed true to her art, doggedly painting psychologically keen portraits through Abstract Expressionism's glory days in the mid-20th century, when realist portraits were the last things the art market cared about. After leaving Isabetta in Cuba, in 1930, Neel had a nervous breakdown and was compelled to examine herself. The film suggests that look inward was a turning point; she realized that self-awareness could be salvation, and she began to apply that emotional intelligence to her art.
But emotional intelligence is not the same thing as compassion.
"She seemed like an angry housewife," remembers painter Alex Katz. "She'd say very belligerent things, and people yelled at her."
She wanted, the film posits, to catch people off guard, so she could see beyond their social masks and paint them exposed. Andrew Neel neglects to consider whether his grandmother's orneriness was its own kind of mask, part of an audacious and prideful defense that included her isolation from the commercial art world and caused her family's deprivation.
Questions such as these dominate "Alice Neel." It's rich with soapy details, and there's enough emphasis on the art to satiate art-hounds. But Andrew Neel presents his grandmother as an enigma he's trying to solve, and he never quite gets there, maybe because he's just too close to her. Her ferocity echoes in the words and attitudes of her children and grandchildren (in one scene, the filmmaker and his father cuss each other out), who are all, in some way, disappointed. For all the juicy storytelling, Alice Neel remains, in this film, a cipher: brash, grandmotherly, and beyond understanding.