Sitting for sanity

Art - Richard Cork on how Alice Neel painted her way out of mental breakdown

The psychological trauma suffered by the American artist Alice Neel proved so severe that she attempted suicide in her late twenties. Neel's second child was removed from her care, and she ended up in a psychiatric hospital struggling to understand her condition. The experience became crucial to her growth as an artist in the 1930s and beyond. Although she had already drawn and painted harshly realist scenes of American street life, Neel learned from consultant psychiatrists how to cope with her own disabling sense of alienation. It involved focusing on portraiture and developing a strong empathy with the people she asked to sit for her.

That is why her exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, the first Neel show ever held in Europe, concentrates on people. Long after her mental turmoil of 1930, Neel paid an unnerving price for the urgency of her involvement with others. "I get so identified when I paint them, when they go home I feel fright- ful," she once admitted. "I have no self - I've gone into this other person." But she went on to account for her depictive hunger by describing how, "by doing that, there's a kind of something I get that other artists don't get . . . It's my way of overcoming the alienation."

The show starts in 1950, more than a decade after she left New York's Greenwich Village and moved uptown to Spanish Harlem. Here, on East 108th Street, Neel continued to scrutinise what she called "the real facts of life" rather than immersing herself in the bohemianism of the city's burgeoning artistic milieu. At a period when the abstract expressionists were placing New York art at the forefront of the international avant-garde, Neel stubbornly persisted with her old love of painting from life.

Black Spanish American Family exemplifies her involvement with people she met and befriended in the neighbourhood. But there was nothing stiflingly conventional about her approach. Relying on the strength of boldly defined contours, as well as thick, vigorous passages of swiftly applied paint, she defined the mother as a monumental figure flanked by two young daughters. Smiling at their portraitist, they nevertheless look shy and reserved. The girls in particular, sitting as near to their mother's reassuring body as possible, stare out with a sense of foreboding. And as in so many of Neel's paintings, the hands disclose the greatest amount of tension. One daughter grips her left wrist with a rigid right hand, as if determined to control any sign of trembling. But her small sister cannot stop herself bringing both sets of fingers together in a tangle, thereby revealing her appre- hensiveness as she submits to Neel's penetrating gaze.

Neel eschewed props, preferring to fill most of her picture space with the figure's bulk. She probably did not want to distract us with incidental details of the room. We are left in no doubt that the artist, like an analyst, focused all energy on the person sitting in front of her. Elsie Rubin, who in 1958 sat for the painting Psychiatrist's Wife, is certainly identified as such. Her smile suggests that she is used to the strangeness of submitting to prolonged inspection. Her coiffed hair, scarlet lipstick and flam- boyant jewellery all exude self-assurance. Yet while one hand strikes a dramatic pose, the other is tucked artfully beneath a circular table, indicating that Rubin, for all her show of confidence, wants to keep something hidden. And Neel's treatment of the table, even more upturned than in a Cezanne still life, accentuates the hint of mystery. The table's top is almost glacial in its whiteness. It introduces a feeling of bleached strangeness to an image in which decorum initially seemed to prevail.

Many of Neel's sitters broadly shared her social and political views. Sarah Shiller, painted in half-length, her haunted eyes surrounded by dark shadows, was a supporter of artists with left-wing convictions, and Mercedes Arroyo, who sat for Neel in 1952, worked as a social activist in Spanish Harlem. So the appearance of an unidentified Swedish aristocrat in the 1959 portrait The Baron is a great surprise. Clad in a discreet black jacket with tie to match, he leans back in his seat and stares confidently at Neel. His moustache and goatee beard are fastidiously shaven, and he lets one leg rest on the other in a show of ease. Cufflinks and waistcoat are prominently displayed by a man whose outward persona is bland and faultlessly manicured. For once, Neel did not attempt to probe beneath the facade.

Indeed, Neel's male subjects seem for the most part genial and harmless. Maynard Stone, his body cut in half by a horizontal table rushing from one side of the picture to the other, appears both well-meaning and vulnerable. As for the beaming Michael Freilich, he exudes bonhomie. By the time Neel painted him in 1972, her style had become cleaner and more defined. She relished the black stripes running across his green armchair, and the hairs on his wrists are specified with unusually fine, delicate lines. Even the cigarette clasped by Freilich's fingers is neatly drawn, and his big-eared, long-nosed face is delineated with notable care.

In the end, though, Neel's female portraits are the most memorable images on view. She gave the title Marxist Girl to her full-length painting of Irene Peslikis, an artist and founder of the pioneering feminist journal Women and Art. Everything about this painting speaks of determination. Although Peslikis slouches back in her chair, a trousered leg slung over the side and the black hair in her right armpit casually exposed, she could hardly look more focused. Isolated against a brilliant yellow carpet, she is the quintessence of lonely emancipation. The fellow feeling between the septuagenarian artist and her feisty young sitter is impossible to ignore, and moving to contemplate.

"Alice Neel: a chronicle of New York 1950-76" is at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London N1 (020 7336 8109) until 31 July