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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Emily Mitchell

In this issue:

ART

The portraits of Alice Neel reveal the soul within the flesh. The Whitney Museum in New York City is the first stop of a traveling retrospective of Neel, acknowledged as a premier painter of the 20th century.

SWW Talks With...

Mollie Poupeney, whose book was published just before her 74th birthday, is interviewed about her life and work by Culture Watch.

AND CONSIDER THIS

A photography exhibit at the Whitney spotlights carnival ecdysiasts; Jonathan Kozol finds the bright light of optimism among children of the South Bronx. 

Art

The Way of All Flesh

Alice Neel; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

     The image of the bohemian dwelling in a picturesque garret and surviving on a diet of art and love makes for grand opera but in reality its just so much romantic nonsense. For Alice Neel, the bohemian life was the struggle of a single mother to raise two sons in an apartment in a poor and unfashionable part of New York City while stubbornly continuing to paint how and what she wanted to and waiting for the art world to catch up to her. It finally did, and she is now acknowledged as one of the leading American painters of the 20th century. In the centenary year of her birth, six decades of Neels work are on view at the Whitney Museum from now to September 17, and it is the first full-scale retrospective since 1984, the year she died. Afterward, the exhibit can be seen through December at the Phillips Academy of Andover, Mass., and then next year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Minneapolis Walker Art Center and the Denver Art Museum. Tragedy struck Neel early on. Her first child died of diphtheria, and her husband, a Cuban painter, walked out, taking their second daughter back to his homeland. One of her earliest paintings in the Whitney exhibit is a watercolor from 1927-28 titled After the Death of a Child. Gray clouds hover above a bleak urban landscape. A tree bare of leaves reaches up its branches as if in an anguished cry. Hunched dark figures walk along a desolate street, and the only color to be found is in the clothing of the children in a playground. After an emotional collapse, suicide attempts and a stay in a sanatorium, Neel, who was born in Merion Square, Penn., left for New York in 1932.  A disastrous two-year relationship ended after her jealous lover destroyed 350 of her works, and in 1938 Neel moved to Spanish East Harlem, where her two sons were born, and where she lived for more than two decades, selling few paintings and ignored by an art public newly obsessed with abstract expressionism. Throughout the 40s and 50s, she sold few works, and painted what was near at hand. In a 1959 painting of what she could see from her window, Neel plays on the tensions between exterior and interior. Snow is on the sill of her window, and its green sash interrupts the view of the airless distance to a mud-colored, unornamented apartment building across the way. From its window hangs a gray rag, stiffened in the cold. Neel was putting aside the academic training she had acquired at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (it is now the Moore College of Art and Design) and developing a unique and vivid style of portraiture using as sitters her friends, neighbors and family members. When she was young, Neel had the wholesomely pretty face of a Midwestern homecoming queen, and later, with her white hair piled on her head, she could have been the kindly grandmother in the frame house down the street who baked apple pies all day.  Beneath her pleasant exterior were a fierce heart and a rebellious spirit. (The FBI, investigated her on-and-off involvement with the Communist party  and in its files described her as a romantic Bohemian type Communist.)  Perhaps because she understood how deceptive appearances can be, Neel could reveal in her portraits what lies beneath the surface, the unvarnished and naked self. Her 1933 nude portrait of Joe Gould, an eccentric character of Greenwich Village, captures the half-mad and giddy light in his alert eyes. Theres a funny squiggle of hair on his thin chest, and Neel awards him three sets of genitalia, a satiric homage to his pretensions as an invincible ladies man. That same year, she painted Nadja Nude, an arresting portrait of a friend as a modern Olympia, reclining in the pose of the famed painting by Manet. The womanher breasts and stomach ripe and round--sprawls unadorned on stark white sheets; her face is calm and watchful. In this, and in other early paintings, theres an odd disjunction between body and face. They dont entirely fit together. A charming 1943 portrait of her son Hartley on a rocking horse echoes the flattened, presentational style of early-American itinerant painters, but the childs expressive face and soft golden hair are realistic.       Through the 1950s, Neel soldiered on, painting almost in isolation from the changing New York City art world. Her style became firmer, she boldly outlined her figures with a black line. She worked with a fully loaded brush making large strong strokes. Raised layers of thick paint formed the contours of the flesh. With strong features and deep shadows, the faces of two young neighborhood girls in Spanish Harlem whom she painted in 1959 are almost sculpted with pigment. In the 60s, the social  realists began growing in importance; they began to have exhibits and, just as important, to sell. Neel was among them. She moved to a more spacious apartment in Manhattan and remained there for the rest of her life, working in a large bright room. A 1977 painting of her view there is in stark contrast to the earlier, more claustrophobic work. The painter has stepped back to give a wider view of her window in the new apartment; it has elegant molding and there is a more solid sense of place. The building that she sees from it has handsomely trimmed windows, and it blazes white in the sun. Outside and inside are now in harmony, balanced, and the overall effect is of optimism.Everyone seemed to want to come to sit for Neel, nude or fully clothed. She began working on a grander scale on larger canvases. The last portraits, of family again, and of art-world denizens, are suffused with light. The painting is surer and smoother, the color floats thinly and often she allows the canvas to show through. Body and face are now united into a whole. Her portrait of Andy Warhol in 1970 is rigorously honest and strangely moving.  Neel sees him unflinchingly and with compassion, posing him without his shirt. He sits like an obedient child for Neel. He clasps his hands, the knees of his trouser-covered legs are pressed primly together, and his neatly shod feet point forward. With his chest exposed and his eyes closed, he seems unwilling to see what we can observe: the hideous scars stretching down his torso, the ghastly legacy of a shooting two years earlier. His livid skin with its greenish shadows  sags, and he is wearing the support that holds up his injured stomach muscles. Neels own self-portrait at 80 is equally startling. Clad in nothing but a pair of glasses, she sits in a chair, armed only with the tools of her trade, a paint brush and rag. Breasts, stomach and muscles are flaccid, but the face is charged with energy. Neel studies herself intently, without flattery. At last she had become what she had said she wanted to be: both the painter and the painting.   

SWW Talks With...

Mollie Poupeney

     A tomboy who sneaks cigarettes, steals Christmas presents for her family, and is fondled by a store owner when she is goes with her mother buy a first bra An alcoholic, adulterous father, and the family always just one step ahead of poverty. These incidents and characters are from a new book for young-adult readers, Her Fathers Daughter (Delacorte; $15.95), and it is a clear-eyed, inspiring tale of a girls coming of age in Oregons lumbering country during the hard times of the 30s. Like other classics written for young people, indeed like many classics for any age, it centers on the story of an outsider, a girl possessed with the knowledge that she is different somehow from everyone around her and  fierce about remaining true to herself while forging her own, singular way in the world. The book was published this spring shortly before the 74th birthday of its author, Mollie Poupeney, a ceramic artist and writer who lives in California and Oregon. In an e-mail interview by Culture Watch, Poupeney answered questions about her writing and her life, which is as compelling as the fictional one she created for Maggie Morrison, the resilient heroine of Her Fathers Daughter.  Story telling has been a continuum through Poupeneys life, starting in the first grade in Hillsboro, Oregon, when she would tell stories to the class and illustrate them with colored chalk on the slate blackboard. The teacher wrote a big SAVE in the corner so it stayed a couple of days, Poupeney recalled. Could an adult do anything finer than that, to give a child recognition and respect? During her teen years, she wrote poems and worked on the school newspaper. Later, marriage and motherhood left little time for writing except late at night when the babies were asleep. With a household of teen-agers, Poupeney started full-time at the University of California and was teaching an after-school art program for children four times a week. After graduating from the University of California as an art major, she began taking writing classes at the colleges extension division. Once again, she received encouragement from a teacher, and she says, I began to take myself seriously. After her three children were grown and on their own, Poupeney enthusiastically plunged full-time into her ceramics, making coil-built and highly burnished low-fire earthenware. I was able to concentrate on the three loves I still pursue: painting, clay and writing. I began to throw myself almost literally into a huge vat of clay, wallowing in the sensations one can only get from this wonderful substanceour earth. Then in 1991 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she says, The surgeries and chemo put a crimp in my career and took a few years out of my life. She turned to writing, revising and sharpening short stories she had started two decades before, and at the same time working on Out to Lunch, a comic strip she created in 1962, and something she calls my obscene naked ladies series. She didnt intentionally set off to write Her Fathers Daughter, explaining that I only wanted to write one short story, about my first bra, an experience that left me with a feeling of shame and humiliation. Id never revealed that to anyone. Neither she nor her mother ever talked about what happened that day and says Poupeney, It wasnt the only time I experienced humiliation and molestation and never talked about it. A time came when I had to write about it. The story is one of the most riveting chapters in the book. The store owner had placed his hand on her breast, pretending to estimate the brassiere size she will need, and then had left her alone. As Maggie tells it: I pick my sailor hat up from the floor and see myself in the mirror as I set it on my head. I look different. My eyes look funny. Not like Im going to cry, but hollow and old, like my moms eyes. I look away. While the incident is painfully real, the character of Maggie, her creator stresses, is fictional. Growing up, Poupeney read the comics in the newspaper and listened raptly to Little Orphan Annie on the radio, just as Maggie and her brothers do. Since I lived very similar experiences, Poupeney says, the details come from some deep place in my memory. I let her have her own adventures some of them mine also and let her be whoever she turns out to be. So far, her young readers like the realistic and sometimes grim themes. I wrote the stories I wrote because I couldnt write anything else.  Today Poupeney lives in a comfortable town house with Lee, her husband of 51 years, and she works on a blue Mac computer that occupies one corner of the living room. No one can write my story, she says, so Im all alone when I face the screen.  For part of the summer, the couple will retreat to their cottage in Ashland, Oregon, where Poupeney plans to complete the first draft of a sequel to Her Fathers Daughter, with Maggie adjusting to big changes in her life: a new stepfather, a new school, and a new best friend. Poupeney says that shes always loved to type and actually feel that the keys and my fingers are the agents that release the stories. With those busy fingers, Poupeney draws upon her own experiencesand a rich imaginationto give life to a resourceful and memorable young woman. Says Mollie of her Maggie: Im crazy about her. Readers of Her Fathers Daughter will be too.   

And Consider This

Photography Carnival Strippers; Whitney Museum of American Art,  New York City.

      Susan Meiselas was just 24 and had been at her trade for about a year when she made summer plans to trail around a group of carnival strip-teasers, taking their pictures and talking to them. The women, who traveled to small towns with shows in the South and New England, were candid in their conversation with Meiselas, and her camera caught them on-stage in performances before an audience of staring men, and behind the scenes as they prepared to strip, rested or just sat in silent reverie. Meiselas pictures capture a tawdry era 25 years ago, before the sexual revolution and feminism, and a series of them can be seen this summer in a gallery of the Whitney Museum. There is something both sad and brave about the women in the pictures, who are earning a living by stripping off their clothes. In tape recordings of the original interviews that accompany the exhibit, one woman explains that the men watching dont really understand the power shift in striptease. The women look at it as being revolutionary, she says. For the first time in their lives to say, Ive got you eating out of the palm of my hand. 

Books

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope By Jonathan Kozol; Crown; 400 pages; $38

      Three decades ago, Jonathan Kozol shamed the nation with Death at an Early Age, a devastating critique about the inequities suffered in the U.S. by the children of the poor. After a lifetime of observing the destruction done to the young, he has returned to the bleak neighborhood of the South Bronx, the setting for his earlier book Amazing Grace, and a group of childrenand adultswho will not submit to pessimism and despair. At the same time, Kozol is on a personal journey, as he must accept the inevitable decline of his mother and father. At the end of the school year, a  much-respected teacher gives her departing students advice that people of all ages might take to heart:  Above all, children, please be safe! And never talk to strangers who approach you in the street. And every night, please put a book beneath your pillow. And be good to your mothers. And listen to your mothers. And be respectful to your mothers. ©

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