The true artist, so goes the myth, labors in bohemian obscurity in search of truth and beauty and by dint of suffering, sacrifice, and genius attains these ideals. Fame and fortune are secondary. Now just try to convince a SoHo gallery owner of this, or any recent graduate of a university art program.
But the myth could apply to portrait painter Alice Neel, who is profiled in this compelling, surprising, and unexpectedly complex documentary by her grandson, Andrew Neel. A country girl from a tiny Pennsylvania town, Neel felt the compulsion to paint from an early age. She headed for Greenwich Village as a young woman and began to demonstrate her other talent, for hooking up with the wrong man. She had three children by three different partners and ended up raising two boys alone, even as she persisted in modes of painting — figurative and realistic — that were deemed anachronistic in the age of Abstract Expressionism. Rescued, at last, by the feminist movement in the ’70s, she became one of America’s most renowned painters before her death in 1984.
Neel employs the conventional methods of archival footage (including a hilarious appearance with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show) and talking-heads interviews to tell the story. But the talking heads include Alice Neel’s two sons — Andrew Neel’s father and uncle — and they turn the film into a psychodrama about the conflicts between generations, between Alice and her sons and Andrew and his father. There’s enough going on in those dynamics for a whole other movie, and the issues touched on sometimes distract from as much as they clarify the artist’s work. That work as seen here evokes artists as disparate as Van Gogh, Walker Percy, Egon Schiele, Rembrandt, and Diane Arbus. But each picture is unique, its subject indelible, vivid, intensely intimate.