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The 1970s were all about breaking down barriers. Artists like Robert Smithson did it with a bulldozer and tons of rock, building a Spiral Jetty out into Great Salt Lake, Utah. Artists like Christo and Jean-Claude did it by erecting a barrier, the Running Fence across northern California, a work that was aimed at bringing together diverse factions of society first in allowing the controversial work to be executed, then in the execution of the thing itself. These works broke down those barriers marking the outer limits of what was considered to be art at the time. About the same time, a different type of barrier was being broken down as well. The artists of the feminist movement were knocking (sometimes beating) on the doors of galleries and museums, trying to break down those barriers blocking the recognition and acceptance of their art not because it was created by women but that it was created about women.

Some of the most important women in this endeavour were Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Ana Mendieta, and Alice Neel. Chicago and Schapiro were young West Coast artists and teachers working in a variety of flat and sculptural media while Ana Mendieta was breaking new ground in the most radical of all art forms--performance art. However the grandmother of them all was Alice Neel. She was born in 1900 and her exceptionally long life span as a working artist bridged so many art eras from the 1920s through the early 80s that her lifetime output is a background history against which the work of other female artists can be subjected in comparison.

Ms. Neel was academically trained at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women during the 1920s, but it wasn't until 1974 that she had her first, one-woman show. That's what you call a lifetime struggle. Actually, that's exactly what it was. One of her children died in infancy. Another was kidnapped by the child's father, and both these events were reflected in her early, expressionistic paintings of children. By the 1930s however, she began to specialise in deeply probing portraits of some of her acquaintances, eventually including other artists, as well as critics, and gallery owners. Her 1970 portrait of Andy Warhol, nude to the waist, revealing scars from an earlier attempt on his life, finds him seated weightlessly on a tiny couch, his eyes closed, head tilted upward, as if trying to float free from the frail body he detested. Like so many of the other paintings in her "collection of souls", as she called them, Neel has peeled away the outer "public" layer to reveal the vulnerable soul inside. She died in 1984, having worked and waited a lifetime for the barriers to fall--for the prevailing aesthetics to adjust to her insights.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
12 August 1998


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