The films Alice Neel and Who's Afraid of Kathy Acker? A Documentary offer unflinching portraits of two important artists whose lives, taken together, span nearly the entire twentieth century--the painter, Alice Neel (1900-84) and the writer, Kathy Acker (1947-97). Alice Neel committed her life to painting at a time when most women of her race and class were expected to get married and raise children.1 As an artist, she eschewed the modernist abstraction championed by Clement Greenberg and the New York art scene as well as the rhetoric of feminism and the emerging women's art movement.2 Andrew Neel's biographical documentary layers intimate family perspectives, interviews with well-known artists and scholars including Mira Schor and Linda Nochlin, and numerous images of his grandmother's paintings in order to take a hard look at the costs and rewards of her choice. The film is itself a cinematic portrait of the great portrait painter--one made through the lens of family legacy.
The writing--and life--of self-avowed pornographer and plagiarist Kathy Acker has been described as a "female voice that goes beyond feminism, artistic freedom turned into a free lifestyle."3 Barbara Caspar's creative documentary film intercuts footage of the experimental author reading her work; rare clips from Acker's early film collaborations and the 1970s CBGB scene; interviews with important figures from literature, the visual arts, and punk rock such as William Burroughs, Carolee Schneemann, and Richard Hell; and original animation that depicts the main character, Janey, from Acker's Blood and Guts in High School (1978). The film's only limitation is that it reinscribes Acker's importance predominantly in terms of literary appropriation and sexual politics.4
Both films are recommended for courses in twentieth century art and literature or the history of feminism and gender/sexuality. One could imagine, for example, pairing Caspar's film with readings of Acker's Blood and Guts in High School and Essential Acker in a class on feminist literature--or with critical perspectives on feminism, pornography, and postmodernism in a class on gender and sexuality.5 Alice Neel will be of use in twentieth century art history courses as well as classes in feminism and gender--paired perhaps with Phoebe Hoban's Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) or with analyses of feminism and the visual arts, such as Peggy Phelan's Art and Feminism (2012).6
Perhaps the most intriguing possibilities come into play when one begins to imagine teaching these films together in classes on feminism and the arts. Taken together, the two films reveal that Neel and Acker had more in common than we might expect. Each artist rebelled against the limitations of social and gender roles as well as the conventions of her chosen form. Each trained a critical eye on our various social masks and performances of identity. In a sense, each "wanted everything" (as the artist is quoted in Alice Neel)--and each film makes clear the cost of that desire for freedom. Each woman struggled, whether with depression, abandonment, suicidal thoughts, or cancer; each suffered--from the joy of Acker's own masochism to Neel's claim that "the greatest torture is feeling." Even more so, each struggled in her relationships with men and depicted raw and frank images of female identity--from Neel's nude portraits of her daughter and frequent candid statements about men and love to Acker's in-your-face narratives of female sexuality. Ultimately, each was judged for her frankness: in one scene of Alice Neel, her granddaughter describes a portrait of her mother as "disgusting." "All that genitalia," she said, "I think it's ugly." Powerfully and critically ugly, perhaps; neither Neel nor Acker were interested in sitting pretty, and each film honors that position.
Finally, through reference to Edward Albee's 1962 play, Caspar's title Who's Afraid of Kathy Acker?, also makes a fruitful connection to Virginia Woolf and issues of gender and creative process.7 Indeed, one could imagine pairing both films with A Room of One's Own in a class on gender and creativity.8 Given Acker's punk identity and involvement in the New York visual art scene as well as broader questions of gender and creativity, one could also imagine teaching these films alongside Patti Smith's Just Kids (2010).9
1 Both artists may be considered white, middle-class women, however these classifications were frequently troubled by the ways that each woman strategically positioned herself in terms of race and class. Think, for example, of Neel's move to Spanish Harlem and rejection of the New York art world at a time of great interest in her work and think of the ways that Acker's Jewishness and articulations of race in works like Kathy Goes to Haiti make similar gestures. One could fruitfully consider engaging issues of whiteness and race in terms of these two artists; e.g., see Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (London: Routledge, 1993); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Martha R. Mahoney, "The Social Construction of Whiteness," in Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, ed. Richard Delgado, et al. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997); Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," in Race, Class and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg (New York: St. Martin Press, 1998); John T. Warren et al., "Subverting Whiteness: Pedagogy at the Crossroads of Performance, Culture and Politics," Theatre Topics 14, no. 2 (2004).
2 In the context of this review, I use the term women's art movement to encompass the directly feminist art of the 1960s and 1970s as well as work that preceded it, such as that of Georgia O'Keefe. There are two main strategies in this work: to bring what were considered traditional women's practices, such as needlecraft and fiber arts, into fine art discourse (from which it had been rejected) and work that used female imagery, such as abstractions of genitalia in paintings and sculptures by O'Keefe, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, and so on.
3 Sally O'Driscoll of The Village Voice quoted on the back cover of the 1989 Grove Press edition of Blood and Guts in High School.
4 Recent efforts expand analysis of Acker's work beyond these frames, e.g. Polina Mackay et al., eds., Kathy Acker and Transnationalism (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009). This collection was published the year after Caspar's film.
5 Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School, 1st Evergreen ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1984); Kathy Acker et al., Essential Acker : The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, 1st ed. (New York: Grove Press, 2002). See also Drucilla Cornell, Feminism and Pornography (Oxford University Press, 2000); Nicola Pitchford, Tactical Readings: Feminist Postmodernism in the Novels of Kathy Acker and Angela Carter (Bucknell University Press, 2002); Linda Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1989).
6 See Peggy Phelan, Art and Feminism (New York: Phaidon Press, 2012); Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (Westview Press, 1988).
7 Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Albee's popular play, which had nothing to do with Virginia Woolf, was remade as a film in 1966.
8 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own [Annotated] (New York: Harcourt Books, 1929/2005).
9 Patti Smith, Just Kids (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
Shannon Rose Riley (ShannonRose.Riley@sjsu.edu) is associate professor of humanities and creative arts at San Jose State University. She is co-editor of Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research: Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies (Palgrave, 2009) and a contributor to Kathy Acker and Transnationalism (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).