Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes

By Ellen H. Johnson | Go to book overview

9 Women Reshaping the Object

Alice Neel's Fifty Years of Portrait Painting

It's very hard to maintain a theory in the face of life that comes crashing about you.

ALICE NEEL 1

As old as the twentieth century, Alice Neel was seventy-three when she joined the picket line at The Museum of Modern Art as zealously as she had taken part in longshoremen rallies and anti-Nazi demonstrations in her thirties. Her political activism and social independence, like her painting, spring less from a conceptual basis than from an intuitive, deeply innocent, I-Thou responsiveness to human beings as they are affected by the situations and conditions in which they exist. Alice Neel insists that art is history, whether intentionally or inadvertently; and throughout her long career as a painter of people, she has demonstrated the truth of her contention.

The socioeconomic and political crises of the I930s and I940s especially are signalised in her paintings of historic events (strikes, demonstrations, breadlines) and of the individuals who mirror the history they suffer (starving children and hopeless men and women), as well as those who make history by fighting for the common good. In her 1935 portrait Pat Whalen, Alice Neel has portrayed the National Maritime Union organiser as strong as a rock and ardent as a saint. The nation honoured Whalen after his death in World War II by naming a liberty ship for him; it was rechristened in the McCarthy era. Among other figures in the labour movement painted by Neel are the burly Pat Cush, organiser in the steel industry (who told the artist that he felt he owned the Frick museum) and the more intellectual-looking Bill McKie, who was sent over to the United States by the British Communist Party to help set up the CIO at the Ford plant in 1941. In compliance with McKie's request, the flowers from his funeral were placed on the unhallowed graves of the four young men who had been shot and killed by Ford guards during the Hunger March in 1932. 2 Neel and her portrait of Bill McKie were flown out to Detroit in I959 for his memorial service.

In 1933 Alice Neel attended a consequential meeting, memorialised in her painting Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation. Ms Neel identifies the third man from the right as David Lasser, head of the Unemployed Council in Washington, who took her with him to the meeting; in the right foreground are two old Italian men from Bleecker Street; and in Neel's words, 'the woman with her head in her hands told how she and her seven children were living in an overturned automobile.... Out of this meeting came welfare and social security—things that prevented this present depression from gaining the

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Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface to the Revised Edition 7
  • Preface 9
  • 1 - Modern Art and the Object from Nineteenth-Century Nature Painting to Conceptual Art 10
  • 2 - The Object Painted and the Painted Object in Quiet Collision 65
  • 3 'the Mountain in the Painting and the Painting in the Mountain' 78
  • 4 - The Painting Freed 97
  • 5 'I Am Nature' 110
  • 6 - Object as Art 135
  • 7 - Art as Object 171
  • 8 - The Object in Jeopardy 196
  • 9 - Women Reshaping the Object 216
  • Notes 261
  • List of Illustrations 273
  • List of Figures 280
  • Acknowledgments 281
  • Index 283
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