Inspiration: Alice Neel “Is it good only if everyone else says it’s good?”

self portrait

Alice Neel: self portrait

The blog has been a little quiet lately as what was scheduled as an August lull filled with personal work and lazy afternoons has become quite busy. During a rare moment of down time in the last week I read an article about the artist Alice Neel in the alumni magazine of Columbia University. (No, I’m not an alum). Her grandson has just finished a documentary about Neel, whose sons and grandson all attended Columbia, and thus the article. For all us struggling artists out there, know this: Neel painted in obscurity for fifty years before she was “discovered” by The Art World during the feminist movement of the 1960s. (As a side note it’s interesting to note how many artists’ careers have been appropriated discovered by political agendas. Think Ansel Adams by the Sierra Club also in the 1970’s. I’m sure you all can think of a few).

Anyone who can work without complaint in obscurity for fifty years will get my attention. For this reason Willem De Kooning also gets the high-five from Raab. But Neel painted realistic if unflattering portraits in a time when what was popular was abstract impressionism. Instead of mimicking her contemporaries, Neel’s painting catalogued a wide swath of society so that by the time of her discovery she had captured “individual by individual, most of the social issues, movements, and upheavals of her time.” So eventually, the pendulum turned and social realism came back into vogue. Watch out you documenters of empty parking lots! Busy moments, order out of chaos, will come back into style again. (Though I do love a well-composed parking lot).

People from that time period were just different, I believe. Today we operate under this presumption that some eternal, infernal state of happiness is ours by right. Neel suffered from depression I believe most of her life. She attempted suicide twice. But she said, “Instead of jumping out the window, I’m putting in the time.” (A turn of phrase, NOT to be confused with Paris Hilton’s famous bon mot: “Instead of serving the time, I’m letting the time serve me.” Can we believe anything that comes out of that trollops mouth?) Well Neel pushed through it, and in the process created a lasting legacy. Isn’t that something for which we should all strive? “I’d rather paint than anything,” she said. I feel the same way about photography.

She lived on relief, for most of her life, raising her two sons on it. Her son Andrew said, “She lived a turbulent life, and the question at hand – the ‘to be or not to be’ – is : ‘Is it valid only if everyone else says it’s good?’ That’s the question that anyone who makes anything asks over and over. You may have to wind up on your deathbed with no one telling you it was any good. She certainly took that risk. I don’t know if I’d have had the fortitude to go as long as she lasted.”

I’ve read a comment somewhere about the amazing number of art school students who just want to be “Artists”, without putting in the time or the inclination, it’s the term they want to be, like young girls want to be celebutantes. But I will argue again and again, that this is what an artist is, someone who wakes up every morning, fights their depression, fights their darkness, puts their shoes on and goes to work, without complaint if you can manage it – without even caring if the editors at Photo District News or fill-in-the-blank EVER notice them.

Cheers to you, Alice Neel.

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2 thoughts on “Inspiration: Alice Neel “Is it good only if everyone else says it’s good?”

  1. hi s-
    this is a great essay. i love the idea that the dedicated few can take the long walk thru the desert and do their work in obscurity: it is romantic and idealistic. i think the reality though is that we are all working with a gratification cycle that forces us to want to be noticed, acknowledged, included in contests, winning things, told we are “great”. it helps greatly to want to continue doing work if we know that our work speaks to others, don’t you think?

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  2. T.A. –

    There is ALWAYS the problem of sustenance. And some of us need to be noticed like a child diving off the high dive yelling to his folks, “Mom look at me!” I myself enter enough contests with the desperate hope that the work will be noticed, not so I can say, “Hey, aren’t I great!?” But operating instead under perhaps the disillusion that the notice will create new opportunities for me to continue with my personal brand of work. It’s all a balance and keeping perspective. What I find gratifying about Neel was that she had to keep at it as a psychological imperative, and it would have been great and no sell-out had her work been noticed and her Whitney show come thirty years earlier, but it didn’t and that didn’t stop her.
    Of course I want my work to speak to others, but there has been plenty of times that work dear to me has not spoken to others, and first and foremost it must speak to ME. I have had the double-edged sword of being complemented on work I didn’t think much of (usually involving exotic subjects in foreign locales, the low-hanging fruit of the unfamiliar) and feeling like a huge phony trying to summon up enthusiasm for it.
    Do you know that bluegrass song, that goes: “You gotta walk that lonesome valley, no one else can walk it with you, you’ve got to walk it for yourself ?”
    We’ve all got to pursue it in our own way, The point is just that Alice Neel was a member of an extremely select club, the Bonafides.
    But no worries, T.A., you are a Bonafide, too.

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