When I think about artists who excel at the art of portraiture, I am thinking about those whom I admire not just for capturing the likeness of a sitter, but those who, courageously and in the most uncompromising way, swore to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth: about the people who model for them, then about us viewers, and ultimately, about themselves.
Alice Neel, a great American portraitist who died in 1984, fits this description to a T. Sixteen paintings from her estate, currently on display at LA Louver Gallery, provide a brief but satisfying introduction into her highly idiosyncratic art and - to put it mildly - into her unconventional way of life. Sweet and proper definitely is not the way to describe the woman or her art. She loved sex, she had three children with three different men, and standing in front of her paintings, you cannot help but feel unnerved by the raw sensuality and erotic energy of most of her portraits, even those of children.
Every man or woman painted by Alice Neel comes across as an intriguing person with an interesting story to tell, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that, unlike other artists, she loved chatting with her models while they posed for her. There is an attractive nervousness in the way she outlines each figure, and then, in the most matter-of-fact way, brushes in bright colors – just enough to convey the immediacy of the moment and spontaneity of conversation.
Thinking about Alice Neel brings to mind another great portraitist of our time, Lucian Freud, who never bothered to flatter his models and didn't make an exception for himself either, as his famously unsentimental nude self-portrait demonstrates so eloquently. Even more unsettling is the self-portrait of Alice Neel, eighty years old and totally nude – and surprisingly defiant in its quirkiness and sensuality. But to see her in all her naked glory, you have to hurry to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where her sprawling retrospective wraps up on June 13.
And while we're on the subject of precise and unnerving portraiture, here is another exhibition to stop you in your tracks and hopefully ruffle your feathers – an ambitious, museum-worthy exhibition of several dozen photographic and painted portraits at RoseGallery in Bergamot Station. From Diane Arbus, zeroing in with an unforgiving camera on her unsuspecting victims, to Manuel Alvarez Bravo, capturing the romantic side of the mundane moments of everyday life...
And here are my two favorites, the first being Richard Avedon's brutally honest portrait of a very old John Ford. I want to think that the famously macho film director took it well and appreciated the unsentimental way he was portrayed. Next is the portrait of Alfred Hitchcock, presented for our delectation by the incomparable Irving Penn; we are invited to sink our teeth into the enigmatic persona and appearance of the legendary director, who appears as if he is pregnant with "Psycho," the masterpiece he would deliver a few years later.
Face to Face
On view at RoseGallery through June 26
Alice Neel: Paintings
On view at LA Louver Gallery through June 26
Alice Neel: Painted Truths
On view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston through June 13
Banner image: Alice Neel, Peggy, c. 1960; Oil on canvas, 18 x 36 in.; image courtesy LA Louver Gallery