A few years ago I visited MoMA, primarily because I was searching to find an artist or piece that would seriously inspire and influence me. I was sort of at a standstill with my art and desperately needed something, really anything, to push me in some sort of direction. I had basically lost hope as I was coming to the end of my museum visit, everything was great in its own way but nothing had filled the artistic void inside of me. Which is when I happened upon the Alice Neel’s painting titled, James Hunter Black Draftee.
The painting was large enough to force you to stand back in order to appreciate it but not big enough to be overwhelming. It depicted a man’s face, fully painted with such intense emotion and simplicity, yet the rest of his body left unfinished and only sketched out. I found this to be strange but there was something so beautiful about it and so I began to research who this artist was and the story behind the painting.
It tuns out Alice Neel was a portrait artist who painted people with no preference. Her subjects range from Dominican boys off the streets of Harlem to mothers in extreme poverty and even famous people such as Andy Warhol. This painting in particular was of a man she had just pulled off from the street to come sit for her but he never returned for his second sitting. Historians believe he was drafted for war the next day which explains his disappearance, why it is unfinished, and also the look of sadness and contemplation that he portrays and somehow we feel.
Often quoted for claiming herself to be a “collector of souls” her paintings prove to be just that as they create a window of transparency for the viewer to connect with the subject. Neel has a way of applying color, line, strokes, and other formal qualities of a painting in different ways depending on the sitter. For some, the line work is dark and bold, spontaneous in a way and done with confidence and for others it’s very soft, with humble brush strokes and a subtly of gradation. For me, I get a a sense of passion, an expression of peoples inner feelings. The tragedies and triumphs of the individual superimposed by all the transitional moments, the in betweens. By painting so vividly what the sitters’ minds and hearts are carrying, she awakens a sense of humanness within myself.