If you can't make it to the Alice Neel retrospective currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, L.A. Louver offers an impressive consolation prize in a show featuring 16 paintings of Neel's friends, lovers, associates and acquaintances spanning four decades — a minisurvey of the artist's oeuvre. Upon entering L.A. Louver's downstairs gallery, turn left and immediately head for the smaller side room. Here, in a selection of four portraits from the '40s and '50s, you find Neel (1900-1984) finding herself in her 40s and 50s. Having studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) before settling in Greenwich Village, and having endured more loves, losses and personal turmoils than most would hope to endure in young adulthood, Neel had moved into middle age, and moved to Spanish Harlem, looking to carve out a place for figurative painting as abstract expressionism was dawning. Nestled among these earlier works, you can see Neel working through proto-modern and early modernist painting. In a 1940 portrait, the face of Neel's companion Sam Brody seems infused with hints of Picasso, the lines of both Mexican and WPA murals, and also art deco, and the head is surrounded by an aura of blue sky, while below the shoulders, the painting goes dour and expressionist. Horace Clayton, a 1949 portrait of the sociologist and columnist, is oddly reminiscent of Max Beckmann self-portraits. Richard, a 1952 portrait of Neel's eldest son, is evocative of Gauguin, while Hubert Satterfield, a 1958 portrait of the leftist writer, calls to mind Rouault. In these and Peggy — a slightly Matisse-ish, lovely and lyrical yet frank and harsh portrait of the battered girlfriend of one of Neel's acquaintances — we see the artist becoming the Neel we know, the one whose paintings of the '60s and the '70s flesh out the rest of this exhibition. Just check out the amazing 1967 painting of Red Grooms and Mimi Gross, in which the figures move in and out of fully rendered form, flat color and shape, and line work that ranges from fluid to choppy. In this and all others, Neel shows herself adept at utilizing skills and moves that could be attributed to schools as varied as Fauves, abstract expressionists, Ashcan painters and pop artists to simultaneously convey a sense of the gravity and gravitas of the body in space, the abstract potential of observation-based painting, the styles of the times (whether art, fashion, furniture or hairdos) and the affect of the sitter. They are as breathtaking as visual totalities as they are as documents of insightful accomplishment.
ALICE NEEL: PAINTINGS: L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice; May 20 through June 26. lalouver.com.
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