"When you're an artist, you're searching for freedom" --Alice Neel
(A. Neel, quoted in Alice Neel, DVD, directed by A. Neel, New York, 2008)
Defiantly figurative, Alice Neel's paintings flew in the face of much of the prevailing fashions of post-war art yet her deeply personal paintings provide as powerful an insight into the human condition as any of the wild gestural brushstrokes that dominated the work of her male abstract expressionist peers. Gladiolas is one of Neel still lives, a select group of works that she began early in her career and even though they do not feature a human subject, they provide an astute understanding of humanity-from the bleak isolation of the empty chair in Loneliness, 1970 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) to the exuberant sense of joie de vivre that is present in the effervescent brushwork of Gladiolas.
Critic Jeremy Lewison once characterized Neel as "a painter with a remarkable facility for paint" and this ability is clearly demonstrated in this painting (J. Lewison, 'Beyond the Pale: Alice Neel and her Legacy,' Art & Australia, vol 48, no.3, February 2011, p. 508). From the strict formality of the square floor tiles contrasting with the gracious curves of the vase (which are in turn mirrored in the scrolling arms and legs of the sofa) to the tall spikes of pink gladiolas blooms themselves, Neel is a master at bringing together a diversity of potentially conflicting forms into an enchanting whole. Here, Neel's iconic brushwork alternates between her characteristic bold black defining outlines of the neo-classical sofa and the delicate, almost ethereal, delineation of the flowers and their petals.
Like her portraiture, Neel's still lives focuses primarily on the portrayal of likeness and, in the true spirit of the academic tradition, the representation is a flattering one. Neel revitalized portraiture at a time when abstraction was the dominant theme by exploring the potential of composition and color to convey an emotional as well as a physical truth. This is a theme she continued to explore with her still lives too and, as can be seen here and in other examples of her work in this genre, even an innocuous object such as a spray of colorful blooms or an anonymous piece of furniture can, in Neel's hands, speak to the frailties of the human condition.
1974, the year in which Gladiolas was painted, marked a milestone in the artist's career as after decades of being overshadowed by her male contemporaries, Neel was given her first solo retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Whilst the critical reaction to the show was mixed, for Neel herself it proved to be an epiphany. Up to this point she had always doubted herself as a painter, but seeing the extraordinary breadth of career hanging in one of the most influential museums in the country allowed her to finally realize her full potential. "I always felt in a sense that I didn't have the right to paint" she admitted sometime later, "...but that show convinced me that I had the perfect right to a paintI didn't have that feeling anymore" (A. Neel, quoted in Alice Neel, DVD, directed by A. Neel, New York, 2008). This new found sense of self-confidence is almost palpable in Gladiolas with the bold use of color and the self-assured composition all combining to produce a portrait of an artist at the height of her creative powers.
Neel nearly always painted her subjects in the living room of her Upper West Side apartment and by inviting them into her personal space she allowed both parties to escape the formal rigidity of the studio setting and open up to the full potential of the encounter. Just as Henri Matisse did a generation earlier in his 1928 painting Vase de fleurs, Neel imbues these colorful blooms with a distinct sense of personality, although here it can be read as a symbolic form of self-portraiture as Gladiolas bears as many traces of the artist as it does about the subject matter itself. Neel understood the power of an empty interior to invoke the character of its inhabitants, even if the subject was absent from the picture itself.
One of the foremost figure painters of the post-war period, Alice Neel was persistent and determined in the pursuit of her unique form of painting when it was widely deemed to be the most unfashionable of genres. The originality and quiet power of her work ultimately came to be recognized in the wake of her first retrospective at the Whitney and since then her reputation has since grown to the point where she has gained a unique and iconic status in the history of American painting. Neel's paintings grew out of the Social Realist concerns of American Art of the 1920s and 1930s, during which time she formed her highly personal brand of figuration. Her paintings often incorporated a strict, self-imposed formula yet working within these confines, Neel created a surprisingly wide range of works, all of which-whatever their subject matter-possess an expressive paint quality that, in the case of Gladiolas results in a intensely probing painting.