Alice Neel In Action

An Uncovered Silent Film Gives Exclusive Insight Into a 20th Century Art Legend

Born in 1900, the indomitable Alice Neel was an artist who defied fashions and trends in art, pioneering her own distinctive style of figurative portraiture right up until her death at the age of 84. Her work—all thick black lines, rough brushstrokes and rich, yellowed colors—provides a link between the expressionism of Münch, the coolness of Alex Katz and the moody tones of Lucian Freud. While many of her subjects were caught on the fly (she sought out people in places as diverse as Spanish Harlem and Andy Warhol’s Factory in her hometown of NYC), much of her work has a particularly intimate cast, focusing on members of her immediate family. In the autumn of 1969, Neel was filmed by her son, Hartley, in the process of creating a portrait of his wife, Virginia, later entitled Ginny in Blue Shirt. This never-before-seen 16mm footage, which we premiere today, was taken during one of the artist’s regular visits to her son and daughter-in-law’s apartment in San Francisco. It was subsequently edited together (by hand-splicing) into a 12-minute silent clip by Hartley Neel, but then stored away amid footage of his travels. Though the vignette wasn’t forgotten, it was only unearthed in 2006, when Hartley’s son Andrew decided to make a documentary about his grandmother, 2007’s Alice Neel. “You can see the confidence in her painting and stroke; the very direct, self-confident lines," says the filmmaker. "Drawing was very important to Alice.” Andrew himself sat for his grandmother on several occasions, including an unwitting session soon after he was born (Andrew, 1978). Alice Neel is often remembered as a chatty, fun-loving figure—Andrew recalls mischievously sneaking his diabetic grandmother ice cream under the noses of his parents. This clip, however, shows her serious side in a moment of absolute dedication. “What I remember about being painted was a very severe atmosphere. I remember her intensity and sharp glance,” he says. 

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