In the sixth grade I was removed from the mandatory music class at my school due to my ineptitude at mastering the xylophone, a task which apparently was a piece of cake to every other student in the school. Luckily, I was enrolled in a progressive institution, who instead of failing me, simply moved me down the hall to an art course. Although this was mildly embarrassing and a little traumatizing (I don't like xylophones one bit!) it ended up being quite fortuitous as I discovered not only that I wasn't completely devoid of talent (don't get your hopes up, anything was better than my rhythm-less renderings!) but also the work of Alice Neel. After being assigned a research report on an artist of our choosing I went to the library and in the midst of my random searching of shelves, judging books by their covers and all, I stumbled upon Alice Neel. Her portraits were sad, haunting and not conventionally beautiful and because I was in a phase of being a free spirit (I consistently wore green stretch pants, I know but it gets worse, with a rainbow stripe down the side) Neel's anti-Monet-lily-pad-paintings seemed to fit the bill. What I didn't know then was that the artist would remain one of my favorites to this day, and that her interesting life would be one that I can't shake from my memory.
Alice Neel therefore, is certainly fabulous and quirky, if not eccentric. Her life was far from picturesque and despite her fame today, for most of her life Neel was supported on welfare or through the Federal Works Administration, whom she worked for during the Depression. Neel's personal life was tumultuous, she suffered the loss of a child, a miscarriage, a suicide attempt, a divorce and several lovers whose affection she would eventually lose. The only thing that remained constant was Neel's work. Unwavering in her style, Neel boldly worked in a style that was far from "in" and because of this was largely ignored by critics. While her more fiscally successful contemporaries were creating abstract expressionist pieces and later caught up in the pop art craze, Neel continued to produce her realistic portraits, that depict the forgotten souls in society and are often emotionally unnerving. It wasn't until the 1960s that Neel's work garnered success critically, but once she hit the scene she was abundantly successful, easily making friends in the art world and painting the likes of Andy Warhol (notice in Neel's portrait Warhol is stripped of his usual guise, and a vulnerable scarred man is shown). Neel's refusal to live by the world's rules or play by those set by art critics speak volumes about her gumption and definitive artistic values. Certainly someone to celebrate!