Alice Neel (1900-1984)
Alice Neel (1900-1984)


Alice Neel (1900-1984)
signed and dated 'NEEL '70' (lower left)
oil on canvas
80 x 52 in. (203.2 x 132.1 cm.)
Painted in 1970.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1984
P. Hills, Alice Neel, New York, 1983, p. 2 (illustrated).
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Alice Neel: Paintings Since 1970, January-April 1985, n.p. (illustrated).
Medford, Massachusetts, Tufts University Art Gallery, Interior/Exterior: Alice Neel, October-December 1991, no. 48 (illustrated).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Andover, Addison Gallery of American Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center and Denver Museum of Art, Alice Neel, June 2000-December 2001 (Denver only).

Lot Essay

While Alice Neel’s reputation is predicated on her revitalization of portraiture in the twentieth century, her still lives equally contain the many multitudes that make her portraits dynamic and moving works of art. In Philodendron, the long leaves of the plant spill out over the pot it rests in, overtaking the blank spaces on the canvas, and subsequently, the room itself. The varying hues of green are given the opportunity to radiate throughout the painting, as they are punctuated only by intermittent warm washes of mustard yellow throughout the room and the rusted red of the flower pot. The rest of the room, and even some of the leaves of the philodendron, are merely outlined in a soft blue, appearing almost ghostlike and allowing the viewer to fully focus on the subject of the work.
This attention to her subject matter is renowned within Neel’s oeuvre. Defiantly figurative, Alice Neel’s paintings actively shirk the predominant fashions of post-war art, most notably the wild gestural works of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Both Neel and the Abstract Expressionists were concerned with conveying emotion through their art, yet they arrived at their destinations through extremely different sets of formal concerns. Working within the tradition of figurative painting, Neel imbues these lifelike representations with a deeply compassionate and personal touch that provokes an insight into the human condition as deep and bold as any of her Abstract Expressionist peers. Like her portraiture, Neel’s still lives focus primarily on the portrayal of likeness. While her portraiture provides her a more obvious route to uncovering inner emotions and perceptions of the human condition, her approach is so skillful that even an innocuous object such as the overflowing pot of a philodendron can convey these concerns equally as strongly.

The space in which the plant resides provides further opportunities to convey these inner feelings. Neel often painted her subjects in the living room of her Upper West Side apartment, allowing an escape from the formal rigidity of the studio setting and creating an intimacy not often found in more traditional still lives where objects rest stagnantly upon a blank table. Neel understood the power of an empty interior in highlighting the characteristics of its inhabitants, even when the subject is an object and not a person. This can be seen in Philodendron through the soft suggestions of furniture and lingering leaves which take secondary priority to the subject at hand – the philodendron.

What Philodendron makes increasingly clear is that, no matter what the subject matter, Neel’s penchant for expression is able to shine through her work, and her perception of the vastness of the human condition is distinguishable even in the most mild of objects.

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