Director - Andrew Neel
Produced by - Ethan Palmer
Cinematography - Andrew Neel, Ethan Palmer, Hillary Spera
Editor - Luke Meyer
Supervising Editor - Brad Turner
Original Music - Jonah Rapino
Sound - Raphael Laski
Portrait painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) was a self-described collector of souls who recorded her sitters on canvas through six decades of the 20th century, among them Andy Warhol, Bella Abzug, Allen Ginsberg and Annie Sprinkle. Neel always sought the "authentic", moving from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem just as the Village was gaining reputation in the art scene. She sacrificed almost everything for her art, delving so far into the psyches of her sitters she would almost lose herself. Yet Neel was also a dedicated mother, raising two sons in the bohemian world she inhabited.
Filmmaker Andrew Neel, Alice Neel's grandson, puts together the pieces of the painter's life using intimate one-on-one interviews with Neel's surviving family and personal archival video. The documentary explores the artist's tumultuous biography and the legacy of Alice Neel's determination to paint her era.
I am Alice Neel's grandson. The intimate connection between Alice's story and my own creates a rare proximity between director and subject that informs this film in both conscious and unconscious ways. Integrating myself into the film as a character, without eclipsing Alice's life story, was critically important to me. My hope was to present Alice's life and work free from judgement yet from the intimate point of view of a family member.
The most vital addition that I felt I could make to the film was an investigation of the consequences that Alice, and those around her (namely my father and his brother) had to endure. My father does not discuss his childhood a great deal, and much of Alice's earlier life exists only in mythological tidbits and anecdotes that surface year after year at family gatherings. I have transcended these myths in order to unearth the difficult private aspects of her story. I have not done this for the sake of sensational details. Nor was it to further galvanize the inaccurate myth of the bohemian artist that is so often propagated by art historians, critics and other filmmakers. My hope was to start a discussion about the difficult personal choices that an artist must often face and how this affects the people around them.
In the 20th century, marked in the art world by abstraction and other non-figurative traditions, Alice's portraits are a brave and lonely reaffirmation of the individual. Her 'paintings of people', as she liked to call them, pay tribute to the unique, un-sanitized aspects of each person that mass media and middle class culture are still threatening to destroy today.
Despite the extremities of Alice's professional and personal lives, her ideals remained remarkably consistent and her style and approach to her work un-flagged by the whims of the contemporary art world. For that I respect her. Tenacity, and a genuine interest in the world around her are what allowed her to make powerful paintings. This film is an investigation of the sacrifices she made in order to live and paint the way she wanted.
All Alice Neel paintings used with permission from Neel Arts & the Estate of Alice Neel.