In this searing, startlingly nonjudgmental documentary, famed painter Alice Neel receives a portrayal worthy of her art from grandson Andrew Neel. Much like Neel’s portraits, the film is marked by audacious understatement, neither whitewashing nor sensationalizing the artist’s sterling achievements and messy personal life. Released Sept. 12 for a limited run, “Alice Neel” should have immediate appeal to anyone with an interest in 20th-century American art. But it’s equally fascinating on its own terms as an uncommonly rich work of cinematic portraiture from a little-known documaker. There’s a touch of the artist in the young Neel, too.
While “Alice Neel” doesn’t presuppose familiarity with its subject, it doesn’t aim to be an encyclopedic account, either. Oftentimes it’s oddly structured, eschewing straight biography for a more impressionistic collection of accounts from friends, family, art critics and historians, all of whom seem to have their own distinct takes on her life and work. For this reason, Neel herself often seems elusive, but the film opts to discuss her, not explain her.
Likewise, unlike so many artist bios, the film makes no elaborate claims about Neel’s genius; beautifully photographed examples of her work make the case themselves.
Neel, who died at age 84 in 1984, seemed to have emerged into the world fully formed as an artist and bohemian, moving to Havana in her early 20s and immersing herself in the Cuban avant-garde scene. Eventually returning to the U.S., she came into her own during the Depression, when a WPA grant allowed her to focus on evocative, soulful portraits of ordinary people, as well as a series of nudes that are still shocking in their luridness. Shifting aesthetic trends branded her as passe for much of the ’50s and ’60s, but the ’70s saw an explosion of interest in her work, with the feminist movement holding her up as an icon and fans like Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol volunteering to sit for portraits.
Seen here in archival footage and home movies, Neel is an engaging subject herself, whether she’s musing, sage-like, on her life, stabbing furiously at a canvas, or slyly flirting with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” Yet the film never glosses over the decades of struggle that preceded her eventual success, nor her substantial difficulties as a mother. Neel’s first daughter died in infancy (memorialized in the stark, brutally titled portrait “The Futility of Effort”), and she effectively abandoned her second, who remained estranged from Neel until eventually committing suicide.
Interviews with Neel’s two sons from later relationships, Richard and Hartley (the filmmaker’s uncle and father, respectively), further testify to the sacrifices she forced others to endure for the sake of her art. The two describe a painful childhood of perpetual instability, poverty, neglect and abuse from Neel’s paramours.
And yet, despite airing substantial dirty laundry, neither son seems to have an axe to grind. Even as they acknowledge her failings as a mother, they nonetheless surround themselves with her paintings and work to maintain her old studio. Hartley even notes that had his mother been a better parent, it likely would have been at the expense of her art.
To his credit, the filmmaker remains neutral, forcing difficult questions to the surface and leaving them unanswered. How could such an astute chronicler of human beings fail to understand the hurt she caused to those near her? Where does one draw the line between artistic genius and self-absorption, and is the former even possible without the latter? These are questions that can be asked of almost any artist’s life, but rarely are both sides of the equation held in such a sympathetic balance.
On a technical level, the film is delicately constructed, delineating a complicated life without narration. Archival footage (including extensive selections from Michel Auder’s “Portrait of Alice Neel”) is seamlessly incorporated. Well paced and edited, the film’s momentum is abetted further by Jonah Rapino’s propulsive score.