Any A-list actress could make a meal out of the family tragedies and career triumphs that marked the life of 20th-century portraitist Alice Neel. But instead, Neel’s grandson Andrew goes the documentary route, using archival interviews with the artist and more recent chats with her variably sane family to create a decent warm-up to a more robust documentary that’ll never be made. This straightforward affair doesn’t force any of the emotional beats, and feels similar to his previous doc, the low key, pretty good Darkon. In all, Alice Neel is a dry, smart film whose subject always stays a little more interesting than the film about her. It’s clearest market is appreciative art lovers and Upper East Side matrons.
All that isn’t to diminish Alice Neel’s talent, or the trauma she experienced in her life. Nor does it disrespect the notion that Andrew Neel is using the occasion to better understand his grandmother. If there’s anything to take away from the experience, it’s Alice Neel’s tenacity and complete dedication to her art, sometimes to the detriment of herself and those around her. Thankfully (for her, at least), Neel’s story and paintings don’t scale the morbid heights of Frida Kahlo, yet she still experienced her share of pain.
Alice Neel was born with the 20th century, and in 1925 married Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez. Their first child together died of diphtheria before turning one, which became a major motivational trigger for her artistic style. The couple’s second child, Isabetta, caused Alice no less grief. In 1930, Enriquez left for Cuba with Isabetta, leaving Alice to attempt suicide and spend months living in a New York sanitarium. Then came the Depression, hardly a fertile financial time for budding artists (or anyone else).
Our way into Alice’s story comes via Andrew’s contemporary interviews with Isabetta’s children, as well as Andrew’s father Hartley and uncle Richard. Andrew (excuse the first-name basis: it’s easier this way) knows that the most revealing interview moments come between the answers, and welts of maternal failure rise to visibly painful levels when some of the interview topics take an uncomfortable turn. Although a well-to-do professional today, Hartley clearly resents the lifestyle his mother provided for him. Richard concurs, saying, “I don’t like bohemian culture. I think I was hurt by it.” Richard and his brother were thrust into these “bohemian” associations starting as boys in Spanish Harlem, where Alice moved in the 1950s in an attempt to reject the Abstract Expressionist movement in vogue at the time so she could paint people of more ordinary stock. It’s a theme throughout the film and her life: a favoring of her art over her responsibilities as a single mother. But no one is accusing Alice of being a bad parent, just benignly ambivalent (which, one can argue, is the same as being a bad parent). Yet Andrew is hardly angling for some sort of j’accuse or cathartic cri du famille. In fact, Alice emerges as an iron-willed, pre-feminist feminist, one of the first contemporary female painters to juggle parenting with a (belatedly) high profile career of artistic expression.
Indeed, Alice never received serious recognition until later in life. And based on the paintings that Andrew lovingly shows in montage, fame should have come much earlier. (Then again, if an artist’s passion is fueled by pain, who knows how her work would have evolved had she been raking in the bucks?) In the ’70s, the Whitney Museum in Manhattan mounted a retrospective exhibit of her work, part of her late-life reevaluation. And seeing the grey-haired Alice stand and smile as appreciative art lovers applaud is the climactic moment of the movie’s intriguing disconnect: that someone so grandmotherly could not only create such bold portraitures, but also birth multiple children by multiple suitors, spend time in a mental hospital and attempt suicide. Alice, who died in 1984, surely lived a life worth examining. But what keeps the film from soaring is that Andrew never quite burrows into Alice’s soul, although there’s every indication he tried, and, indeed, may think he did. But what he sees as answers, we only see as information, as fascinating as that information might be.
Directed: Andrew Neel
Produced: Ethan Palmer
Running time: 82 min.
Release date: September 12 LA