84 year old portrait artist Alice Neel said this to the renowned essayist Henry Geldzhaler. Well, she didn’t quite say this. Henry had asked Alice “does a good subject make a good painting?” She cheekily replied, “a good artist makes a good painting.”
I like Alice. Alice paints large quirky portraits whose subjects have large soulful heads and bodies trapped in awkward poses. Her subjects seem to say “hey won’t you look at me?” while simultaneously admitting “I have no idea how I present myself.”
After reading Alice’s interview I came away with the feeling that the subjects of her portraits are nothing like herself. Alice knows who she is. Oh to be like Alice! Her self knowledge may have been honed after years of private struggle (the loss of children and time spent in sanatoriums). But I suspect she always had it: as her own words suggest, “the more experience you have, the better it is…unless it kills you. And then you have gone to far.” (More cheekiness!)
I think her confident sense of self was burnished by her work ethic. She didn’t capitulate to the abstract, conceptual or pop sensibilities that defined the macho art scene of the 70s. She refused to simplify, complicate or even commercialize. She remained a straight shooter.
What does it take to be more like Alice (and less like her subject matter?) I don’t know, and, more worrisome, I have a sneaking suspicion I will never know. Some say it is harder for the female. We have been conditioned, or genetically programmed, to put ourselves second. Well it didn’t stop Alice. I realize technology prevents us from asking ourselves the deeper questions by hyper-focusing on progress and perfection. And the self help books of today are complicit. A quick search of top titles instruct one to “Get Your Sh#t Together and Win at Life”, find “Joy at Work” and “Make Your Bed.” Hmmmm…..I think not.
As much as I would like to be fully evolved, most days I don’t care. It requires too much discipline, too much attention. And I’m not particularly good at either. Recently, while reading a book on existential prose and taking numerous daydreaming breaks, (I told you!), I came across a description of a “hagstone,” which is a stone with a hole worn through the center. According to European folklore gazing through one reveals the past and the future. In witchcraft it serves as a protective amulet. I admit I am drawn to the idea of a simple fix. I could use a rock that protects and offers the possibility of time travel. Think of all the things I could predict…and control! Currently the only part of my life that I fully control is what I chose to paint on a canvas. Before starting a painting I used to hold an empty projector slide up to my eye to selectively crop my surroundings. Much like a hagstone the slide harnessed multiple dimensions of time: the present view, my sensibilities based on past experience, and the future artwork itself.
I can hear Alice Neel laughing at my hopeless need to overthink a situation. My desire to make connections and solve difficult problems with minimal effort. (Always minimal effort!) I can hear instructing me to “sit still” so she can paint me in all my ridiculous majesty. Because Alice paints what she sees. No explanation needed, dummy. Like she lived her life. I would like to live like that.