Culture and arts writer Hoban (Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, 1998) presents an accessible biography of painter Alice Neel (1900–1984).
Like many creative geniuses, Neel's story as an artist began with a rebellious childhood. From an early age, she turned to art as an outlet to cope with her rejection of turn-of-the-century societal sensibilities. Even at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, Neel felt like an outsider, despite the fact that she was repeatedly recognized for her talent. Later on, her aversion to conformity persisted in her choice of mediums. During the height of abstract expressionism, she forged ahead as a realist painter, producing dark and psychologically revealing portraits of a diverse group of people. She found subjects all around her, from the masses on the New York streets to her well-known artist friends (Andy Warhol, Joe Gould) to her own children, and Neel captured a stark, disarming beauty in all of them. Because her work was often brutally personal—for example, the paintings she produced after the death of her first child—Neel's oeuvre is also extraordinarily reflective of her life and alludes to such issues as her struggle with feminine roles, including motherhood, and her involvement with Marxism and the Communist Party. Amid the personal issues that dogged her—mostly trouble with men and money—Neel remained prolific, slowly gaining professional recognition. In 1970, she was commissioned to paint Kate Millett for the cover of Time, and in 1974, her work appeared as a retrospective at the Whitney. Throughout this moving biography, Hoban allows Neel's triumphs and struggles to inform her experience, and the result is an honest narrative of an artist who always strived to document the truth, however difficult. “No matter what happens to you,” she once said, “you still keep on painting.”
An intimate look at one of American art history's unsung heroes.