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“There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.”

Thus spake David St. Hubbins, lead singer of that legendary (and nonexistent) rock band Spinal Tap.

I was thinking of that quote when I was viewing a slideshow of the work of Alice Neel, an American painter who died in 1984. She’s getting yet another gallery show and the Huffington Post has apparently posted  the gallery’s fawning press release without byline or attribution. Either that or the short piece was written by an Alice Neel fan.

I say these things not to disparage her work but rather to raise the question of what separates bad art from good and good from great. At first glance, Neel’s work doesn’t look all that different from that of the county fair portrait artists who crank out reasonable likenesses for $20 each. The county fair portrait artist may never rise beyond the midway, but Neel is getting a show at Zwirner’s Gallery in Chelsea a quarter-century after her death. What’s up with that?

Nancy (Alice Neel, 1980)

Well, if you spend a little time with her work, you begin to notice an emotional content that other painters can’t seem to convey and it’s consistent across the span of her career. An Alice Neel portrait from the 1920s or 30s is remarkably similar to one from the 1970s. She was a voracious collector of ordinary human beings and most of her subjects are people you’ve never heard of. They’re casually dressed and posed and most of them look lost in though or downright unhappy. She uses simple settings to establish intimacy and carefully uses light and shadow to give her subjects a kind of naturalness that almost contradicts the distorted shapes and exaggerated colors that give her work an instantly recognizable……well, something. An instantly recognizable something that I can’t put into words but is very clearly there. That, I guess, is why Neel has a show at Zwirner’s instead of being fondly remembered on the county fair circuit.

Hartley (Alice Neel, 1978)

Neel had a difficult life, as it turns out, losing a child to diphtheria, having another taken from her by husband, spending a little time in a mental institution. It’s no surprise that her work contains a hint of tragedy and distance. Consider Hartley, above, his gaze focused somewhere well outside the frame, one knee drawn up as if to protect himself from the woman at the canvas. There’s an intimacy here, but that intimacy is overwhelmed by some psychological barbed wire that Hartley has surrounded himself with. What makes this palpable tension all the more interesting is the fact that the subject is Neel’s son, in his late 30s.  Was he a reluctant sitter or was Neel expressing an emotional gulf between herself and her son as the end of her life was drawing nearer?  It’s questions like this, present in a number of the portraits that Neel has left us, that give weight to her work and draws the viewer in.

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