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ALICE NEEL(director/writer: Andrew Neel; cinematographers: Andrew Neel/Ethan Palmer/Hillary Spera; editor: Luke Meyer; music: Jonah Rapino; cast: Hartley Neel, Richard Neel, Jeremy Lewison, Robert Storr, Juan Martinez, Phil Bonosky, Cristina Lancella, Chuck Close; Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ethan Palmer/Rebecca Spence; SeeThink Productions; 2007)
“Directed with great feeling and in a nonjudgmental way.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Talking-head documentary on the legendary but emotionally troubled portrait painter Alice Neel (1900-1984), that was directed with great feeling and in a nonjudgmental way by her grandson Andrew (the son of Alice’s son Hartley). It questions family members to delve into the painter’s twisted life and how she managed to paint while raising children as a single parent in NYC. Andrew tells his story in a conventional way, using photos, his grandmother’s paintings, interviews with those in the art scene and archival footage (including Alice’s appearance with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show).

Alice’s relationships with men were not that good. Her first child, from a wealthy Cuban artist, died of diphtheria. After a stay in Cuba, Alice leaves for her hometown in Pennsylvania and then finds work with the WPA in NYC but leaves her art community in the Village to be with the so-called real folks of Spanish Harlem. In the meantime Alice had three more children, a daughter Isabetta with her Cuban artist hubby (she lives with dad when they separate) and then two sons: Richard with a Puerto Rican night-club singer and Hartley with a left-wing intellectual she met on her WPA gig. All these relationships ended badly.

On camera we see Alice’s two sons Richard and Hartley, as they talk about the advantages and disadvantages growing up in such a bohemian household in Spanish Harlem. The kids are living an economically impoverished but intellectually rich existence, as mom lived on odd teaching jobs and welfare. Their life experiences encouraged the boys to reject mom’s bohemian lifestyle (but not their mom) and to graduate from Columbia as professionals (Hartley as a physician and Richard as a conservative Wall Street type). Richard talks of child abuse from Hartley’s live-in intellectual dad, who hated him, and that his mum did nothing to stop it. Hartley talks of bonding with his stepbrother and realizing they were both in the same predicament, and that despite mom’s mental problems and failures she still loved her children and would do anything to make sure they could have the kind of life they felt best suited for. As for the daughter, she was estranged from Alice and after marrying and raising her own family she committed suicide.

Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art were the rage at the time of Alice’s youth and her work remained neglected until the 1960s when she became embraced by the feminists as an icon. Her popularity was helped later on when late in her life the Whitney, in 1974, exhibited her work. Alice, though an anti-Establishment figure had a deep craving for fame and recognition.

I didn’t think the film nailed down Alice Neel, maybe because she’s so complex that she can’t be or maybe because the film wasn’t able to do its job. But like Alice’s portraits, it lets us know that “art is a search for the truth” and is not something easily achieved or defined.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”