If you can read the succinct yet jam-packed teaser of an initial chapter in this first book-length biography of the painter Alice Neel, in which author Phoebe Hoban enticingly and zestily catalogues the highlights of Neel’s career, and then still resist plunging immediately into the text that follows-well, you must be an unimaginative, unromantic Philistine of the grossest sort. Neel’s life in tantalizing outline — born with the twentieth century, artistically active in every decade from the 1920s to the 1980s, stylistically adventuresome, uncompromisingly principled, mentally eccentric, bohemian by nature, acquainted with many famous fellow creators and colorful lowlife characters, adopted by feminists as a standard-bearer, finally endowed with elderly fame — constitutes the archetypical painterly arc, a narrative of mythic proportions. How could anyone with even a shred of imagination and joie de vivre fail to fall headfirst into this story?
The reader certainly finds no barriers, but rather every inducement to enjoyment, in Hoban’s taut marshalling of the exotic facts of Neel’s life, arrayed in handsome, unflinching prose. Besides meticulously chronicling the quotidian details of Neel’s wayward and convoluted existence-the artist was in many ways her own worst foe, prey to mad, bad and dangerous men-Hoban also employs just the right amount of contextual detail to bring into shimmering reality such disparate milieus as small-town Pennsylvania society, glittering pre-revolutionary Cuban high life, and the Depression-era Greenwich Village art scene. She establishes to the best of anyone’s ability the realities of Neel’s many love affairs and career triumphs and tragedies, given the artist’s self-mythologizing propensities.
And of course, the roster of paintings receives a beautiful burnishing from Hoban. There are nice color reproductions of the most important works, here to aid our understanding and appreciation. But naturally the vast majority of Neel’s catalog can only be described herein, and this task Hoban attends to with a keen eye. “John, naked except for one sock and one shoe, is dancing with three sows, one of whom, clearly meant to be Alice, is being penetrated by the other shoe. Beneath the frolicking man and his porcine playmates, two dancing wine bottles kiss. The parodic and pseudopornographic style of this piece are unlike anything else Neel would ever do, combining shocking candor with biting satire.”
While still maintaining Neel’s quintessential fragile and fallible humanity, Hoban gives the pioneering artist her full demiurgic measure of stature and influence. I myself see a clear path from Neel to such creators as Diane Arbus, Julie Doucet and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Were it not for Alice Neel’s uncompromising vision and attainment, the landscape of figurative art today would be vastly diminished, and this sterling biography makes you acknowledge that fact while also delivering immense narrative pleasures.
-PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.