Alice Neel, Isabetta, 1934/35, Oil on canvas, 43 x 26 inches
In some dark times a few years past, I was blowing in the wind like a tumbleweed. Fresh out of graduate school, feeling more vulnerable and insecure than I had before entering, I found myself in a cold studio in upstate New York. In my work and life, I felt like an ice statue, petrified with fear. The one thing I wanted to do was paint, but besides being financially broke (and the anxiety that comes with that), I couldn’t shut off the voices in my head. I could still hear the voices of all the critics, visiting artists and professors that had come into my studio at the university and told me about my paintings. What was right, what was wrong. I didn’t know how to trust myself; I couldn’t hear my own voice. Just as I had when I was a child, I felt unworthy and wanted to shy away from my responsibilities, my emotions and reality. I sat in my studio, with my books and my thoughts, trying to come back down to earth and find the strength to stand back up.
If you open either of my Alice Neel books, they will each open to the same painting: Isabetta. Here stands a young girl (the artist’s daughter, age 6), fully nude, hands on hips, bushy brown hair, pale blue eyes that gaze past you, defiant. Her eyes gently flow through me, almost in the way a cat can look at you as if they know you. She dares you to test her power. Her legs are gangly but strong like two tree trunks, and her feet stand sturdily rooted to the floor. Although she’s completely naked, there’s no trace of fear at being seen. Instead, a sense of vitality arises from this image. What power could be possessed in the awkwardness of a young girl, seemingly unprotected? I felt the awkward little girl in me stirring, a sense of vulnerability recognized and transformed into a different kind of power by this painting. Somehow, through all my confusion and insecurities, something in me spoke up. This painting invited me to find strength and courage in an unlikely hero: a little girl stripped bare.
It is because of some very unfortunate and also some very beautiful circumstances that I am even here. I’m sure many of you can say the same. It is especially true for those of us who were brought up in turmoil or uncertainty and are consequently subject to bouts of anxiety and depression later in life, or else choose to shut off completely.
To give some perspective as to why I think this image fills me with so much emotion, it’s important to explain a little of my own history. I was born in the shadow of my sister’s untimely death from gun violence, with an acute awareness of the fragility of (especially young) lives. Always feeling like an outsider, I awkwardly grew into adulthood, plagued by what I found out later in life is called “survivor’s guilt.” Starting out as an artist, I made my living by taking care of children, determined to nurture and protect their young lives. The incredible brilliance and honesty of the children in my life helped me to see beauty in small moments and develop a sense of awe. It taught me how to appreciate the child in me, the one that wanted to shy away.
Alice Neel’s mother said to young Alice, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.” What a thing to say to a child! And yet, I know I’ve felt the same at times. What gives me the right? How can I stand up when the odds seem so slim? Younger as well as more mature bare female bodies are often portrayed in my work. I spend a lot of time worrying about how people will react. I often feel these bodies are overtly and needlessly sexualized by my audience, and that makes people feel uncomfortable. But by the term “audience,” I mean that I worry about the expectations of the monocratic, uncontested, male audience. It is engrained in the system. I am, by conditions set forth by centuries and centuries of male-dominated organization, taught to guard myself and my work against the ridicule of the classic norm, the patriarchy. But my work is matriarchal, not patriarchal. The heroic for me is the feminine; the norm is that of the She working within that structure. I have developed great respect for vulnerability and for complex emotions. Neel’s painting of Isabetta opened the door and showed me how to paint with honesty. It revealed so much bravery and is a reminder to work through obstacles, such as my fear of being judged and feelings of inadequacy that might suppress my truth.
To those who feel uncomfortable at the sight of a young naked girl, depicted with honesty and integrity, don’t feel discouraged and try not to judge others for liking it. Just accept that this painting, this subject matter is not speaking to you, but try to acknowledge that it might be, for someone else. If you feel uncomfortable, it is most likely something inside you, not inside the painting. For me, Isabetta has become a totem; a symbol for the power of emotional honesty.
I know that Alice Neel struggled through much in her life, including a series of mental breakdowns, suicide attempts, and the loss of loved ones. Through all of those hardships, she painted, creating works that would set a course for the many who followed her. Thank you, Alice, for paving the way and showing me there is space for emotional intensity and challenging the norms of how we view female bodies, emotions, and the parts hidden and unknown. There is a way to move through all that is strange and unpredictable in life and keep painting. As I sat frightened and paralyzed in my cold studio up north, Alice’s Isabetta showed me a way to stand up again.
Happy Birthday Alice!
Born 120 years ago
January 28, 1900
Haley Josephs, When Times Are Hard, Just Remember the Serenity Prayer, 2018, Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches
Haley Josephs is a Brooklyn based painter. She received her BFA in Painting and Drawing from Tyler School of Art in 2011 and her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University in 2014. Recent solo and group exhibitions include Jack Barrett, New York, NY; Cleveland Institute of Art, Reinberger Gallery, Cleveland, OH; Capsule, Shainghai, China; Thomas Erben, New York, NY; Journal Gallery, New York, NY; Carl Kostyal, Malmo, Sweden; Diane Rosenstein, Los Angeles, CA.