Alice Neel's participation in the WPA's Federal Art Project, often overlooked, has in retrospect become one of the most salient and storied aspects of this celebrated artist's career. Works Neel painted during this period are not only compelling tokens to her hardscrabble beginnings, but also serve to anticipate and illuminate the signature style of her mature ouevre. One of her earliest submissions to the project, Circus of 1935, is a fascinating painting that encompasses her interests of this period while also forecasting formal elements, such as a compressed picture plane, that would later become standard in her compositions.
Asking artists to submit works every 6 weeks, the F.A.P. encouraged the production of paintings that represented all aspects of American society. Most always on the standard-issue 24 x 30 inch canvas that the F.A.P. required, Neel's works from this period vary from genre scenes in the vein of Reginald Marsh to moody urban landscapes (9th Avenue El, 1935) to highly symbolic allegorical portraits (Kenneth Fearing, in 1935). Though Neel stopped receiving aid from the WPA (in 1945), it can be said that even into the twighlight of her career her paintings always sought an expository, truth-seeking reconaissance.
On the outset, this two-ring Circus is an unabashedly playful
exception to this rule. Acrobats on trapezes swoosh above horseback
gymnasts and passerby in a child-like scene that urges a comparison to the whimsical gouaches and circus toys of Alexander Calder, which he
initiated as early as 1932. But in contrast to Calder's joviality,
Neel uses a European expressionist vocabulary of cramped composition
and darkly burlesque imagery to imbue a quintessentially American scene with a palpable tragedy and pathos.
Two years prior to painting Circus, Neel participated in a large group exhibition in Philadelphia featuring works by Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, and many other Russian, Mexican and European contemporaries. In Circus, the influence of these artists is palpable in everything from the iconography to the composition. The sweetly simplified show-horse in the foreground speak to Chagall's oeuvre, the burlesque feathered hats of the horseback riders relate to Kirchner's elegant ladies, while the pathetic clumsiness of the clown are simpatico with Max Beckmann's dark, Weimar-era cabaret scenes. In Circus, Neel employs the trope commonly used by the Die Brcke group, of a faux-naive of dual perspective, allowing a birds-eye view of the red and yellow circus rings to coincide with the vanishing point offered by the shrunken appearance of the acrobat troops at the far end of the tent.
Neel would reissue this cramped perspectival view in future paintings, using compressed space to signify tension. If Circus speaks of the America Neel was assigned to document, it speaks of denial and the failure of popular entertainment in distracting the public from the prevailing concerns of poverty. This brand of cynical honesty demonstrates Neel's sharp and nuanced perception of modern life, presaging the artist's sensitive and emotive renderings of her subjects.
A rare and early painting, Circus demonstrates Neel's versatility as a painter and her willingness to explore styles she admired without the risk of subsuming her own.