Students Respond: “John Mollenkopf”

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Alice Neel
John Mollenkopf, 1970
Oil on canvas, 52 x 39.75
Gift of Dr. Hartley Neel

I picked this painting because it was one of the few portraits in the gallery’s paintings collection and I’m really interested in portraiture and figure painting (especially work that breaks portraiture conventions). I think I was immediately drawn to Neel’s powerful use of line: the thick black outlines denoting form, the bold vertical motion of the figure’s shirt and pants, and the harsh shadows on his feet and forehead. The contrast between the severity of the brushstrokes and the sitter’s relaxed, almost vulnerable posture and serene expression lend the painting a powerful psychological depth. As I researched Neel a little more I found that in her portraits she aimed for truthful depictions of her sitters rather than realistic portraits; I think this painting is a subtle but successful example of that goal. The subject is also clearly situated in a space, but the painting holds no clues as to what or where the space is; I think this raises interesting questions about the relationship between Neel and this sitter particularly (presumably John Mollenkopf) and more broadly about how the intimacy (or lack thereof) between a painter and a sitter/model can shape a painting.

Ann Temkin wrote of Neel’s work that it was “happy to look wrong,” which I really like as an idea and I think is part of what drew me to this painting. In the figurative work I’ve been doing I think I’ve been trying to achieve something similar (although I didn’t have those words to describe it yet), so I’m really excited to study Neel’s work more thoroughly and learn from her.

-Magdalena Levandoski ’22

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