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‘Alice Neel’: Portrait of the Artist as a Grandmother

Alice NeelPhoto by Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Andrew Neel, the 28-year-old grandson of the seminal painter Alice Neel, has created a compelling, prismatic portrait of the artist, who rose to fame during the seventies. Documenting facets of her life and work — from her bravura portrait painting to the sometimes painful consequences of her bohemian lifestyle — the director pieces together archival footage and intimate interviews with family members, including his father, Hartley, and his uncle Richard, along with comments from art historians and fellow painters. Alice Neel, which runs at Cinema Village through May 17, traces the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of this idiosyncratic and indomitable artist, avoiding sentimentality while touching on some poignant family history. We spoke with Andrew Neel.

Was it a conscious choice for you to remain behind the camera?
Yes, very much so. I felt it was more interesting if I were not embodied literally in the movie, because I have this removed perspective on who she was — I don’t really remember her very well. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of a lot of films that have similar subject matter, where it suddenly becomes this self-searching, self-serving, self-therapeutic thing where you’re examining your own trauma. Alice’s story is much more compelling.

So you weren’t going to take the My Architect route.
There were a lot of things about that film that I vehemently did not want do.

There’s one point in the film where you ask your father how Neel managed to make ends meet. He’s uncomfortable and asks you if the camera is on. Then you keep filming.
I knew the conversation was going to get interesting, so I was playing my relationship with him a little bit. What’s so funny about that is that I was aware that I could get that roughshod tension, so I was trying to capture that in a spontaneous filmmaking sense. It was not exactly surreptitious. He knew the camera was back on him.

In addition to your father, Hartley, and your uncle Richard, you interviewed about twenty people in the finished film. What was left on the cutting-room floor?
I think we interviewed between 50 and 60 people. I did that for two reasons, one because I was searching for a way to give this film something more than a traditional academic review of her life, but the second reason was that I felt it was my duty to document this stuff. A lot of these people are old, and by the time I’m middle-aged most everyone who has ever been painted by Alice will be dead. So we had about 100 hours of my footage and maybe 50 hours of scattered archival footage that we cut down to 82 minutes.

Is there anything you regret having to leave out?
From an old-fashioned documentarian point of view, it was unfortunate that I had to leave out my bit on communism and politics. [Neel was involved with the Communist party and had a show in the Soviet Union in 1981. She was politically active, marching in protests and painting civil-rights and labor leaders.] It was one of last things to go. But in the end I decided her humanitarian politics were quite clear, so I didn’t feel it was an egregious omission.

There’s a great moment when the film goes silent and you focus, one by one, on a number of Alice’s paintings.
The thing that was on the top of my list was integrating the work in a visually stunning way. We went to great lengths to shoot the paintings themselves in high definition because they’ve got to be alive as works of art. They have so much emotion and action and flesh and blood. And second on my list was telling the story of her life in an emotional way.

Did your feeling about Alice’s paintings change through making the film?
One of the more valuable things I learned is just a real love for paint. It’s like a wine aficionado. I have a soft spot now for ballsy paint-handling, and I don’t think I necessarily realized that aspect of Alice’s work until I made the film.

You won an award for your film Darkon, about the people who play that [role-playing] game. What are you working on now?
I am co-directing a movie with [New York video artist] Michel Auder right now that’s called The Feature. It’s the story of Michel’s life through his own footage, but fictionalized. I would call it a “fiction biopic.” —Phoebe Hoban

‘Alice Neel’: Portrait of the Artist as a Grandmother