More to realism than meets the eye

She makes one wonder about the nature of "reality." Alice Neel's portraits are often a little disturbing - sometimes more than a little. There's something about the human condition stamped on these figures that is not so much unflattering as heart-rending. Suffering rises in the eyes even of babies. And not one of her sitters is prettified or sentimentalized.

"Alice Neel," at the Denver Art Museum through Dec. 30, is a stunning, powerful exhibition - the most comprehensive of the painter's work ever assembled - and it brings into sharp relief the ongoing importance of realism in American art.

Neel was born in January 1900, and her career spanned most of the 20th century. She once appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

She was great friends with the most important artists of her time, from Andy Warhol to Allen Ginsberg. Neel was also given an honorary doctorate by the Kansas City Art Institute, and honored by Mayor Ed Koch of New York and President Jimmy Carter, among other government dignitaries.

The influences on much of her work might have sprung as much from German Expressionist film as from earlier American realists such as Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri.

She could use paint to express agitation and distress - and did, right through her career.

A painting of her husband, Carlos Enriquez, in 1927 ("Carlos," watercolor on paper) shows her Bohemian mate in a hard-angled chair, a little askew from the table where he awaits his dinner.

"After the Death of the Child" (1927, watercolor on paper) captures the artist herself as a ghostly creature haunting a desolate street next to a playground where children in bright clothes play. A black, bare tree unites the two sides of the picture, its trunk curving around the artist, echoing her distress.

Oil paintings "Well Baby Clinic" (1928), "Ninth Avenue El" (1935), "Woman in Pink Velvet Hat" (1944), and "Randall in Extremis" (1960) all record the artist's perception of mental disquiet.

There is always more in Neel's approach to realism than usually meets the eye. She was not fooled by mere appearances and always seemed to catch the mental state of her sitters as their thoughts flew by.

In 1962, Neel painted Robert Smithson (most famous for the earth sculpture "The Spiral Jetty"). Neel captured the grace of his hands, the intensity of his eyes and brow, and the awkward angularity of his stringy frame. The wall behind him and the drape at the window seem electrified by his presence, and the study is careful and thoughtful. It seems to have captured him in a single moment in time.

In "Thanksgiving" (1965), her holiday bird thaws in the sink. Neel joked that because there is an Ajax container in the picture, this was her single contribution to Pop Art.

But this odd "kitchen sink" painting amuses all of us who have ever fixed the Thanksgiving meal. We know how it starts out - the reality of preparation - before it ends up picture perfect.

Toward the end of her 84 years, Neel was as great a painter as she had ever been.

One of her most shocking canvases is a nude self-portrait made in 1980. The unsparing take on the kindless facts of aging is all that shocks - the artist wears her glasses and holds her paint brush in one hand, a rag in the other, as if to say, "When all is said and done, I am an artist no matter what the outward appearance."

The artists, critics, historians, and friends she painted throughout her life linger in the viewer's imagination not because they are beautiful, but because they pulsate with lively intelligence.

Viewers experience the life of each of these sitters as if we, too, knew them. Always the heads are a little too large, the shoulders a bit too narrow, the legs foreshortened, the hands often elongated. And the eyes, whether they are closed or open, young or old, tell stories of deeply lived experience.

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