Alice Neel (1900-1984), American painter – and memorable participant in the classic Beat Generation film, Pull My Daisy – (she plays the role of the Bishop’s Mother, art dealer, Richard Bellamy plays the Bishop), was born on this day.
Alfred Leslie (co-producer) – “I first met Alice in 1945 at some party and she asked me to come pose for her. She said I looked like a faun because I have pointy ears. I loved Alice and thought she was a wise and funny and very courageous person. And when I thought of somebody for this part who was matronly but also had an edge the first person I thought of was Alice”
For most of the twenty-eight minutes of the film, Neel simply sits on the couch. She got twenty-five dollars a day for appearing in the film but the notoriety it gave her (at the time, indeed, for much of her life, she was a “painter’s painter”, less a successful money-making artist) was incalculable.
As Neel herself remembers it:
“I looked like a conventional American type. I had a hat then, and orange gloves and an orange scarf. I went (to the first day of shooting) and there was Allen Ginsberg. So I said, “Oh, are you taking the part of Allen Ginsberg?”. And he said, “No I am Allen Ginsberg.”
“Gregory Corso was there, looking like a gargoyle that had jumped off a building in France”.
David Amram – “We all admired her so much. In the art world of the time she wasn’t appreciated (as she should have been). I think she is appreciated now more than ever”.
Her star has indeed risen. She was declared “one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century” by Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which organized a retrospective of her work in 2010. Six years later, Claire Messud, writing in the New York Review of Books, observed, “More than thirty years after her death, the oeuvre of American painter Alice Neel attracts ever greater interest, and seems only ever more relevant”. She noted “the substantial and moving exhibition of her paintings” (then on display at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague) and its catalog, Alice Neel – Painter of Modern Life, as “the latest indication of this groundswell of attention”, in addition to Phoebe Hoban’s biography, The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, and Alice Neel, a biographical film directed by Neel’s grandson, Andrew, made some three years previously.
More recently, Hilton Als curated Alice Neel Uptown (2017), David Zwimer published Alice Neel Freedom, (documenting the extraordinary solo exhibition of the artist’s work in 2019, at New York’s Zwimer Gallery), and, in the coming months, Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey will be publishing Alice Neel – People Come First, in conjunction with a show (opening March 22nd) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, a major museum retrospective:
“This ambitious survey will position Neel as one of the century’s most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art, as demonstrated in the approximately one hundred paintings, drawings, and watercolors..”
Alice Neel on what she learnt from Cezanne