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Unflinching Eye

Denver Art Museum hosts Alice Neel collection a taste of the best of 20th-century American art



O.K., here's a question for you: Who were the greatest American artists of the 20th century? The century's over; it's time for list making. After all, if VH1 can devote a couple of hours to the 100 greatest heavy metal bands, we can rank order a few artists.

And who do you put on the list? Pollock and de Kooning, Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Smithson, Maya Lin -- it could be a very long list indeed.

Alice Neel (1900-1984), whose life was as interesting and tumultuous as the century itself, would be on most such lists. Over 80 of Neel's paintings, watercolors and drawings are on display at the Denver Art Museum in an exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Art Museum to mark the centenary of Neel's birth.

An extraordinarily gifted, disciplined and facile artist, Neel was primarily a portraitist. She painted her friends, her lovers, her children. She painted the dead and the dying, the wounded and the whole. She painted people about to make love and people making love. She painted the powerful and the obscure, the ugly and the beautiful. She cared nothing for artistic fashion.

She spared no one. Her portraits, commissioned or not, never flatter. Look, for example, at her portrait of Andy Warhol, done a couple of years after Valerie Solanis had attempted to kill him with a handgun. Warhol, shirtless, is seated. His torso -- thin, flabby, girlish -- is criss-crossed by angry scars; he wears a truss to support his stomach muscles. His expression is calm, neutral, unreadable -- but Neel has literally stripped the master illusionist of his power. His eyes are closed; he can't bear to look at himself. Neel's eye reveals more about Warhol than Andy's art and life could ever reveal by themselves.

Or look at her 1967 portrait of Henry Geldzahler, then curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alice Neel had been scorned or ignored by the art establishment for most of her life. One wonders whether this biting depiction of one of the power brokers of the New York art scene reflects earlier slights.

Geldzahler is seated, casually dressed, one arm draped over the back of his chair, the other on the chair's arm. Subtle cues tell us that he's a frightened, insecure man; he's not looking directly at the artist, his left hand is tensely splayed, not relaxed, and the chair that he sits in is foreshortened -- he seems about to slide off. But you don't see those details; what you see is a young man at the pinnacle of his profession with all of his fears and vulnerabilities front and center.

Neel's portraits, although subtly and carefully executed, are not in the least bit subtle. They're unmediated, like Velasquez's "Los Menudos," or Goya's "Disasters of War," or Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet." You don't have to know anything about art, or about the artist, to appreciate their raw power. Take, for example, "T.B. Harlem" (1940), a depiction of Neel's lover's brother lying, deathly ill, in his bed. As a painting, it's a tour de force, an astonishing composition, rhythmic and structured. Its coloration is somber and muted, quietly beautiful. And all this beauty serves one purpose: to force the viewer's eye to meet the calm, shadowed eyes of a dying man.

But Neel could be light and playful, as well as darkly serious. An untitled 1935 watercolor shows her nude, with her lover, in the bathroom, preparing to make love. It's both graphically erotic and sweetly matter-of-fact. And there are portraits that are tender and revelatory, like that of the nude and joyfully pregnant Margaret Evans (1978).

Interestingly, Neel painted several well-known Coloradans in her long career. In 1969, Springs native Timothy Collins (who, incidentally, owned the Warhol portrait and donated it to the Whitney in 1980) commissioned her to paint both himself and his mother, Leila Webb Davidson. Neither portrait is in the show, but Neel's 1971 portrait of Diane Vanderlip, now curator of contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum, can be seen. Alice refused to paint her in a favorite black outfit, so Diane, seen by Alice as a beautiful, controlled, contained and opaque young woman is (apparently uncharacteristically) dressed in a shimmery blue top and white pants.

Diane may have escaped relatively unscathed from Neel's cold and unsparing eye, but few of her subjects did, including the artist. At 80, she painted herself -- nude. With the same unflinching eye that she turned upon Warhol and Geldzahler, she painted what she saw; an old woman, soft-bodied and heavy-stomached with shrunken, pendulous breasts. She's seated in a chair that we recognize; dozens of her subjects have posed in its comfortable embrace. Neel's body seems to be collapsing into itself, sinking into the earth, but her head is erect, her eyes clear, her hands (holding brush and rag) steady. As in "Margaret Evans Pregnant," Neel uses a clear, bright palette, and suffuses the painting with a warm, unshadowed interior light.

This show is a joy. It's comprehensive, beautifully displayed, and intelligently curated. And given that Neel's work is scattered through scores of museums and private collections, it'll be a long time before another such show comes to town.

So go see it. Neel's not just one of the best American artists of the last century, she may be the very best. Just as we look at Homer, at Sargent, at Church and at Eakins to understand 19th-century America, so, I suspect, will future generations look at Neel's work, as they try to plumb the multiple confusions of the 20th century.

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