Monday, April 13, 2009

Undergoing Scrutiny

Alice Neel
Frank O'Hara, 1960


Alice Neel
Frank O'Hara, No. 2, 1960


I've been enjoying rereading the book Alice Neel, Edited by Ann Temkin With essays by Ann Temkin, Susan Rosenberg, and Richard Flood. These two portraits of the poet Frank O'Hara have always intrigued me, and the extreme difference between them. Richard Flood writes:

"Neel's first portrait of (O'Hara), achieved over five sessions, shows him in gorgeously romantic profile, rather like a young pharaoh. He stares liquidly into a milky light, a vase of Whitmanesque lilacs behind his head. In this first portrait O'Hara is all poet and muse; the curator is nowhere to be found."

"Frank O'Hara, No. 2, was completed in a day, and in it, I suspect, Neel painted the curator missing in its predecessor. O'Hara's pose has been yanked from profile to frontal view. His hands, out of the frame in the first painting, are carelessly rendered clutching his chair as if he is a patient in a waiting room. The flowers are now dead, and the gently directed light of the first painting has become an assault."

Flood writes that O'Hara never included Neel in an exhibition, nor did he as a critic, ever write about her work. He surmises, "Something must have gone horribly awry between sitting one and sitting five to inspire Neel's aggressive, apparently spontaneous flaying of the poet's flesh from the curator's skull."

The making of a portrait is so very complex - the inspirations that create a finished portrait are multi-faceted and spring from many sources. It's interesting that Flood wants to make the aggressiveness of the second portrait all about Neel having anger towards O'Hara. But maybe this dramatically different portrait is more about Alice Neel, and her emotional state? Or the time constraint and consequent speed required to create the portrait which caused her to simply cut to the chase? Or could it be that she sensed O'Hara would die young? (He died six years later at the age of 40 in a car crash). Hard to say.

5 comments:

Jeane said...

thank you Martha! I am always amused by peoples interpretations of other peoples work! good grief! - I've heard people discuss my work and they layer in all this physco babble when actually I just couldn't get the line to work right! or something just as inane - I'm sure you have had the same experiences.....

artslice said...

Oh how I love Alice Neel. Interesting commentary on these 2 pieces... you never know what kind of undercurrents are flowing.
Alice Neel's grandaughter is now a painter herself... I think her name's Victoria? She's the little girl Neel painted several times and she looks just like her mother. If I find her name, I'll let you know!

Blue Sky Dreaming said...

I haven't thought of Alice Neel in ages...thank you for these wonderful photos and comments. Hard to know what was going on in her studio on the day she painted...hard to know what is going on in anyone's studio but the portraits are very different. I'm revisiting Alice Neel now..again thanks!

Susan Beauchemin said...

I like the second portrait's mouth!! I like that portrait!

Martha Miller said...

hey everyone! thanks for dropping in! hope you enjoy more of neel's images in today's post! she's the best, from east to west. brenda, i'd love to see victoria's work! will research that. sue, alice said about that mouth that his teeth looked like tombstones!!! gotta love 'er...