Cindy Nemser and Chuck (1975), oil on canvas, 105.41 cm x 75.565 cm
In 1975, at the age of 38, I was decided it was time for me to let Alice Neel paint my portrait. She had asked to do it when I first met her years earlier but I declined fearing I would like Frankenstein’s daughter. However, now I believed she was the foremost portrait painter of the twentieth century, and I considered it an honor to sit for her even if my portrayal didn’t turn out to be flattering. I was joining a select group of art critics like John Perreault, David Bourdon, Gregory Battcock and John Gruen who had already volunteered to be part of Alice’s mesmerizing body of work.
When I asked her to paint me she surprised me by saying, “You know what! I’ll paint you and your saintly husband.”
Chuck, who loved Alice’s paintings and enjoyed her always original barb-filled conversation, immediately agreed, so, on a cold day in February, we made our way to Alice’s labyrinth of an apartment located in a decaying Victorian building on the corner of Broadway and 107th street. I wore my perfectly fitting stunning size 12 suede suit, which my husband had impulsively bought without me as a gift, and he had on a brand new outfit. Alice took one look at us, and frowned.
“All those clothes,” she wailed, as she looked me over. “You look so fussy with all those layers of clothes and all that Mickey Mouse jewelry.”
“You look so bourgeois in that pin-striped suit,” she admonished my husband. “I just painted a dentist and he had all those clothes on too.”
I was taken aback by Alice’s disappointment in our appearance, but felt at a loss as to how to appease her. As I sat there mulling it over, she continued to express her dissatisfaction and to look us over with her sharp little eyes. Then her eyes glittered and she let out one of her preposterous high pitched “tee hees,” and, said, “You know what? I’ll paint you both in the nude.”
I stiffened in horror and I saw a similar reaction in my husband.
“No way, Alice!” I said with conviction. “The editors of the Feminist Art Journal are not going to be painted as sex objects. Besides I don’t like the way I look in the nude.”
“All right,” she said mildly, “Let me look at you. She eyed us intently again. “But I can’t see how to paint you. Well let me think about it. Couldn’t you just take off your jacket? You’ve got so much on.”
“All right, I’ll take off the jacket if it will make you happy but that’s all. I removed my stylish jacket while my husband concurrently removed the jacket and vest of his three-piece suit.
“Well, I don’t know,” Alice, murmured plaintively, “I still don’t see how to paint you. Well, just sit there.”
Then the phone rang and she left the room; when she came back she still could not find a pose that pleased her.
“Well take off that sweater,” she begged me. (I had worn an extra sweater as it was an ice-cold day and her apartment was never well heated.) “Perhaps I’ll like the color of your blouse better.”
I had misgivings, I felt like a laboratory animal that was part of an experiment, but I accommodated her, and again the phone rang and she left the room. Time was passing. When she returned she had no use for my pretty, patterned blue blouse.
Couldn’t you just take off that blouse,” she cajoled. “I bet you look great in your bra.”
I resisted firmly, “No. I can’t. I won’t. I see where this is leading and I won’t do it.”
“Well, all right. Let me look at you again—maybe I’ll see something I haven’t seen before. I know I’ll paint you in your underwear and Chuck in his clothes.”
“ Forget that,” I cried, “I’ll look like a hooker in a bordello.” I thought to myself, better be a classic nude than painted as a whore.
By now an hour had gone by with Alice running in and out of the room answering the phone and talking to various people working in her apartment, including her ever faithful, put-upon daughter-in-law Nancy. I began to suspect that if we did not disrobe there would be no portrait. I was petrified at the idea of being painted naked with my far from perfect body on display, but I had set my heart on Alice doing our portrait. At the same time I also started to feel challenged by the whole situation. It was as if I were being tested. I decided to take the dare and risk exposing myself. I told Chuck, who despite his middle-class trappings has an adventurous soul, that we might as well do what she wanted since she was going to wear us down in the end.
And so after an hour and a half of deliberation, dread, and doubts, there I was sitting naked on Alice’s green silk-covered Empire style couch next to my almost undressed husband, who had only stripped to his briefs. It looked as if he were naked because in the pose we had taken I completely covered his genitalia. Had she tricked us into it? Bullied us to get her way? Or had she known that deep inside of us was a desire to discard the facade and pretense created by clothing of any variety.
How characteristic it was of Alice to penetrate the social mask, to move through the barriers of class and position in order to reveal the essential traits that the sitter adds to the ongoing human comedy. When my image was done it disclosed an unexpected sensuousness coupled with a sadness and vulnerability, while my husband’s portrait underscored his healthy sensuality and basic generosity of spirit. These traits were not only delineated by the rendering of our facial expressions, but were also to be read in the pose we had chosen for ourselves which Alice then transferred to the canvas. We sat close together, holding hands in an attitude of mutual support. My body concealed Chuck’s sexual parts while his hand rested on my waist in a gesture of affectionate protectiveness. In this double portrait, the artist had psyched us out as individuals and had also arrived at the essence of our relationship. I was happy that we shared this experience together. I wasn’t pleased, however, that she titled the picture “Cindy Nemser and Chuck.” But my husband didn’t mind as he accepted himself as a less important actor on the stage of art history.
Once I had accepted the reality of my nakedness and vulnerability, I began to relax and observe how Alice behaved as she transmuted her subjects or “victims,” as she called them, into paint. She selected a 42-inch by 60-inch canvas and was determined to fit us onto it. Seated in front of the canvas, this snow-white haired elderly woman in her loose-fitting blue smock, her bright blue eyes squinting and blinking behind her glasses, her plump legs spread forcefully apart, and her space-shoed feet planted solidly on the floor, she picked up her brush gingerly and wailed, “I’m just scared to death—I’m petrified.”
But she summoned up her courage and began without any preliminary sketch to make our outlines on the canvas. Starting from my leg and working upward Alice spread our images, along with her silk-covered couch, over the surface. Our bodies were compressed and a small portion of Chuck’s hair was cut off, but for all intents and purposes, Alice Neel had captured us in our entirety.
The process took six sittings of about four hours each, and she was a stern taskmaster allowing only a few ten-minutes breaks. The sparsely furnished room looked out on Broadway, a dreary garbage strewn street in those years, and it was chilly all the time. I was glad Chuck and I were huddling together as it kept us warmer. It was both amusing and amazing to watch Alice at work. While she formed our torsos and arms and legs, she chattered incessantly telling rambling tales and making pungent comments—but when it came to our faces, she became transformed; her face looked ecstatic, her mouth hung open, her eyes were glazed, as if she were undergoing some religious trance, and she never uttered a word. I recalled what she had told me about her approach to portraiture in our conversation in Art Talk:
“Sometimes I feel awful after I paint because I go back to an untenanted house. I go back to a place where there isn’t anything. I leave myself and go out to that person and when I come back there’s a desert. You know what it is for me? It’s an esthetic trip like an LSD trip.”
But though the artist was somehow expanding her consciousness into mine, her brush moved on with the utmost surety for contradicting her first statement, she also told me in the same conversation that “though I participate a lot, I do not leave myself completely because you have to be in control of the situation or no painting comes out at all.”
I thought of buying the painting. But Alice wanted $6,000, which back then was a lot of money, more than I could afford. Recently I found out she had a drawings of me, after the double portrait was finished. If I had known about it at the time I certainly would have bought it
Our nude portraits were on display in 1976 when Alice had a show at the Graham Gallery. To my slight embarrassment, it was reproduced in New York Magazine and the reviewer, the art critic Thomas Hess called it quite connubial which was unusual in an Alice Neel representation of married people. It also reproduced in the Village Voice, in the newsletter of the radio station WBAI, and it appeared on the cover of several little magazines. Liz Smith made a mention of it in her column in the Daily News, as did Amei Wallach in Newsday, Vivian Raynor in the Times and John Perreault in theSoho Weekly News.
Shortly afterward, Chuck’s aunt called to tell us how amazed she was to see us so exposed in popular publications. I was amused by her reaction. At last I had done something outrageous that set me apart from the staid, convention-ridden middle class from which I too always wanted to escape.