Will she be known as the American Van Gogh?

AS an artist, Alice Neel (1900-1984) always spoke the truth, without embellishments or evasions, and with little concern for the social amenities. Confronted by reality, she preferred to depict it as it was rather than as it should be, and to present it starkly, regardless of whose feelings were hurt or whose ideals were offended. She was incisive in her figure studies, and unyieldingly frank in her portrait characterizations. Members of her family, strangers, and friends all received the same treatment, and when it came to painting herself -- as she did in ``Self-Portrait at 80'' -- she was as truthful about her own appearance as she was about everyone else's.

Who her subjects were and what they did, felt, and thought were of more importance than their pictorial potentials. And as far as the rules of art were concerned, if they got in the way, they were unhesitatingly changed.

Not surprisingly, she had a difficult time most of her life. During the days of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, she was relegated to the status of oddball character, and even earlier, at the time of the Federal Art Project, her position with the Works Progress Administration was constantly in jeopardy because of the bold and ``difficult'' nature of her work.

Although Thomas B. Hess, an influential art critic, singled her out for an award in 1962, and she became affiliated with an important gallery in 1963, it was not until 1974 that she was finally given a one-woman show at a major museum. With the Whitney's stamp of approval and the success of her 1975 retrospective at the Georgia Museum of Art behind her, the rest of the art establishment slowly fell into line. She was elected to the prestigious National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976, invited to exhibit her canvases in museums from Maine to California, and by 1980 was beginning to receive the respect due a living ``old master.''

Even so, not everything went smoothly. Enough critics and members of the public objected to the apparent casualness and ``clumsiness'' of her draftsmanship that her work remained at the center of controversy. And every time she displayed one of her extraordinarily blunt studies of such art-world luminaries as Andy Warhol, the Soyer brothers, or John Perreault, charges of vulgarity were leveled at her.

Some of her supporters, on the other hand, insisted she was the most underrated artist of the 20th century and a kind of American Van Gogh. Her name became a rallying cry for the increasingly large number of women artists whose work was finally beginning to receive the recognition it deserved. And, just as significant, her example helped release the creative energies of many younger painters still trapped within rigidly formal theories and practices.

Her very presence in the art world was enriching. Any exhibition, no matter what size, that included an Alice Neel portrait or figure study was guaranteed at least one touch of humanity. Even the occasional glimpse of Neel peering at a painting in a gallery and then sharing her opinion of it with anyone who cared to listen was a special event, for it reminded the viewer that here was someone who had battled all her life to do things her way, and who had ultimately won.

Unfortunately, we still don't know how large a purely artistic victory she achieved. Two things are certain, however: Her art is much too true to be dismissed, and any and all arguments as to her importance must take her technical idiosyncrasies into account.

The latter is inevitable, because her expressive and somewhat simplistic manner of drawing and painting often calls attention to itself in ways that undermine her images' credibility as major art. We may be convinced and moved by the truth of her characterization, but blocked from fully experiencing it as art because our attention is distracted by careless or odd touches here and there.

For her fans, of course, such aberrations are of no consequence in the light of her uncompromising honesty. If we can overlook Van Gogh's technical weaknesses, they ask, why can't we ignore Alice Neel's?

Whether or not art history accepts this argument depends largely on how future generations view the importance of style and elegance in art. If they return to the notion that art should only represent the ideal and the genteel, and should always be technically refined, then her future importance -- and indeed Van Gogh's and that of most other Expressionists -- will be very much in doubt. But if art continues to expand as it has this past century, and is increasingly perceived as a means to greater expression, communication, and sharing, then Alice Neel may well be counted among the most valuable American artists of the post-World War II period. Considering the deadening effect formal idealism and ``good manners'' can have upon art, I can only hope that the latter will prove to be the case.

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