Olivia Neel’s eyes are famously expressive. The young Olivia stares from the frames of several paintings by her grandmother Alice Neel, one of the great humanizing portraitists of the twentieth century. In “Olivia With the Rubber Plant,” a remarkable 1977 painting, the subject slings herself across a purple chair, dangles one bare foot over an armrest, and grabs the other. She looks impertinent, a little anxious, ready for the day, too full of restless energy to sit still.
Four and a half decades later, Neel is still fissile, still intense, and still staring right at the viewer. Jersey City artist Ben Fine [IG: @benfinepainting] has coaxed Neel back in front of an easel for her first portrait in decades — and her first done by someone other than her celebrated grandma. Fine captured the grown-up Olivia just as Alice once captured the child: sitting in an armchair, awkward but self-possessed, ready to meet the visitor’s gaze with alacrity. “Olivia Neel With the Sore Thumb” will be on view at the Central Railroad Terminal in Liberty State Park during the fifth edition of Art Fair 14C (Oct. 12-15), our annual exposition and celebration of regional creativity. (Fine is one of this year’s Showcase artists.)
What gives a Jersey City painter with a humble studio in the Elevator complex the authority to step into the shoes of master? Quite a bit, it turns out. Ben Fine comes from a family that has been active in the arts in the New York metropolitan area for decades. Fine’s great aunt Rose Fried, for instance, was the first gallerist to give Alice Neel a solo show — and she did it against the prevailing winds. At the time of Neel’s emergence, representations of the human figure were out of style. Fried mounted the show anyway, and in so doing, she helped launch a career that would reinvigorate American portraiture.
Alice Neel’s painting exhibits a clear influence on Ben Fine’s work. He, too, paints psychologically revealing pictures of people that foreground their personalities, quirks and all. Fine even puts many of his sitters in an armchair. His is pink, cushy, enveloping, rescued from Goodwill, and a suitable resting place for urban iconoclasts and prickly customers of all kinds.
We caught up with Ben Fine for a conversation about the Fines, the Neels, portrait painting, the effect of the pandemic, and the future of his craft.
Tris McCall/Jersey City Times: How long have you known Olivia Neel? Do you remember when you first met?
Ben Fine: I met Olivia this past spring at my mother’s 60-year retrospective. [Ben Fine’s mom is the sculptor Joan Fine, whose work can be seen at @joanfineart on Instagram.] It was a beautiful celebration of my mother’s work that spanned her career — from her stone carvings in the 1970s to relief sculptures, mixed media, and her more recent work in papier-mâché. Olivia had been invited by a mutual friend of my sister Rebecca.
When I met Olivia at the exhibition, I immediately recognized her from her grandmother’s
portraits. She had painted Olivia dozens of times and I was a little nervous because Alice Neel is such a huge inspiration and influence.
So when I pitched the idea of her sitting for me, I used a little humor. I suggested that
because her grandmother had painted two of my family members, it was only fair that I
painted one of her — like an inter-family portraiture paint-off.
TMC: Was she enthusiastic?
BF: Yes! She was so gracious and receptive to the idea. She told me she hadn’t been painted since her grandmother passed away in 1984.
TMC: Who were the family members of yours who were painted by Alice Neel? Are those portraits still in the family?
BF: Neither painting is in the family, unfortunately. One is a portrait of my great aunt Rose Fried, who gave Alice her first solo exhibition in New York in 1944. It’s a painting done from memory in 1946, and it totally conveys Aunt Rose’s commanding presence. She’s standing in a kind of power pose.
The other one is pretty famous. It’s called “Rose Fried’s Nephew.” It was actually the subject of an entire exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Connecticut last year. Alice painted his portrait in 1963 but only knew him as Rose’s nephew. He’s my mother’s cousin, Roger Jacoby, who was an avant-garde filmmaker and the life partner of Andy Warhol’s muse, Ondine.
TMC: When did Rose Fried and Alice Neel get to know each other?
BF: It must have been a little before 1944 when Aunt Rose gave Alice Neel her first solo show in New York City at her gallery on 57th Street, which was then called Pinacotheca.
TMC: When was Pinacotheca established?
BF: I believe she opened in 1932, and it became the Rose Fried Gallery in the 1950s. Rose was very passionate about the artists she championed. Apparently, she lived in an apartment behind the gallery space. My mother worked in the gallery during high school, and encountering art there was a big influence on her life.
Rose was particularly interested in minimalists and conceptual artists, Cubists, Futurists, and Dadaists, including Marcel Duchamp, Malevich, Klee, Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, de Chirico, Mondrian, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Kurt Schwitters, to name just a few in her incredible program.
Alice Neel’s figurative approach to painting was not really in fashion during the 1940s and 1950s. European and American artists were turning towards abstraction and Abstract Expressionism. Rose took a chance showing Alice’s work. Olivia remembers how important that was to her grandmother, partly because she didn’t have another solo for a long time after that.
Rose and Alice shared political sensibilities, Olivia reminded me. They were both Lefties, and Alice found sanctuary in her relationship with Rose during the run-up to the McCarthy era.
TMC: Growing up in an environment like that must have been exciting. Were you determined to be a visual artist from an early age?
BF: I wasn’t always so aware of all that history. But we had a copy of the portrait of Rose Fried, and Alice Neel’s work was part of my visual lexicon from the beginning. I grew up watching my mother work in her studio, covered in dust, carving these massive blocks of stone from Carrara, Italy. It was incredibly exciting.
I was one of those kids who drew and painted from early childhood: I think wrote my first artist statement almost immediately after being brought back from the hospital. My first painting was of my father when I was 4. When I was 10, I started drawing from live models at the Art Students League in New York City.
TMC: You chose to paint Olivia in your famous pink armchair. Did you consider painting her elsewhere? Or did you want her to be part of that series?
BF: I debated whether to paint her in the pink armchair. I had a solo exhibit in 2021 with ten Pink Armchair portraits that I had worked on during the pandemic and then took a break from that series to explore other ideas. I only started up again recently with the paintings of my father and Olivia.
TMC: I remember that exhibit well — it was at the 313 Gallery on 3rd St., and it was very evocative. That pink chair seems to correlate to family: you’ve painted your mom, your dad, and yourself in that chair. Your Pink Armchair self-portrait is now on view in the “Slow Selfie” show at Novado Gallery (350 Warren St.). What does the chair mean to you?
BF: At first, the armchair was a visual element, repeating in each painting, tying the series together. But after a while, I wondered if maybe I’m the chair, you know? Embracing people. Like I’m embodying the chair’s role as host to the sitters who share this space with me.
TMC: You’ve got to have warm feelings about somebody to imagine yourself as their armchair!
BF: Right! I guess I’m picking people I know I’m going to be spending time with because after they leave, I live with that moment for weeks. As I work to finish the painting, I try to retain the energy of that exchange and extend that moment over time.
I began the Pink Armchair series a few weeks before the outbreak of COVID-19. I was
able to convince some close friends, colleagues, and family members to spend an afternoon with me. Once I had made enough portraits to begin to see the group taking
form, I started to see not only formal connections created by the paintings’ adjacencies
but also interesting emotional connections that started to emerge.
At the heart of this series is an imagination of a new mode of seeing people; illustrating
through repetition of the portrait, the idea that we are both autonomous individuals and
part of a community. The opportunity to look closely at people, especially during
mandated social distancing, was fascinating and left me with a strong feeling of
compassion and connection.
TMC: Unlike your mom and dad, who are painted in full, Olivia’s painting is ever so slightly incomplete. Her feet aren’t portrayed. That makes her pink armchair portrait a little different from the others you’ve shown. Was that deliberate?
BF: Yes. Originally, I had created a set of rules for the series: all painted from the same distance, showing the entire body, with the same horizon line behind the chair. But after time passed, I became excited to break some of those rules. I chose to push in slightly on the Olivia painting and reframe it without having to show the whole figure. I might zoom in further in future paintings.
TMC: Alice Neel’s paintings of Olivia are characterized by very intense stares. They almost look like exaggerations, but in your portrait, there it is — Olivia’s very penetrating gaze. I suppose that’s just a persistent characteristic of hers. But it must make her an intimidating subject.
BF: Olivia has a very expressive face, so she’s an amazing subject to paint. She told me during the sitting that her mother used to tell her she has “eager eyes.” I was nervous at the beginning of the session because of all the weight of our shared history and everything else. But I chose to have her look directly at me anyway.
TMC: That was definitely the brave choice.
BF: Yes, not the easier choice. People don’t usually hold a gaze that long. That’s especially true now, with everyone schlumped over, looking at their phones. Olivia told me part of the reason she agreed to sit for me was her memory of the intimacy of the experience of sitting for her grandmother.
TMC: There’s another indication of physical damage in the portrait. Her thumb is in a wrap. Is that a metaphor? Or was it literal?
BF: It’s funny. The night I met her, she had a heavily bandaged thumb. I thought it would be interesting to have her wear the bandage when I painted her portrait. When she finally came to sit months later, her thumb had healed, but in the spirit of the original idea, she agreed to dress the thumb in bandages anyway.
TMC: How long did the sitting take?
BF: The portrait took 4 hours with breaks. During the sitting, I heard stories about what it was like for her to sit for her grandmother. She told me it was disorienting for my easel to be positioned to her right since Alice’s easel was always on the left. Apparently, Alice Neel was a lefty. So she was a lefty and a Lefty, I thought to myself.
As artists, we are always in silent dialogue with artists who came before us. But doing this portrait felt as if I was in direct communication with a painter who has become a big influence on my approach to painting people. Alice Neel’s paintings were unconventional, capturing an intimate yet unsentimental essence. Getting the chance to paint Olivia, who’d been the subject of many paintings I’d studied over the years, was a big honor for me. It was as if one of Van Gogh’s subjects — Dr. Gachet, for example — was about to materialize in my studio.
TMC: How important is realist detail to you when you paint a portrait? You don’t try to make them look like photographs, but they sure look alive.
BF: It’s more important to retain the energy of the exchange between me and the sitter. I try not to fuss and become tight with detail. I want to keep the energy in the surface of the painting. I want the paintings to feel alive and bring out the vulnerabilities of the people I paint.
It’s really like walking a tightrope at the outset of these paintings and I’m always surprised and exhausted when the sitter leaves. It’s very intense.
TMC: I don’t think of portrait painting as a modern preoccupation, necessarily, but there are a few interesting portraitists working in Jersey City right now — you, Mark Kurdzeil, the street artist Clarence Rich, Raisa Nosova — all of those are painters who’ve really brought their subjects to life for me. I know Clarence Rich is in 14C this year, and I believe Raisa Nosova is, too. What does being part of 14C mean to you?
BF: The chance to show my work and meet other artists is very important to me. I am part of a small group of artists in the Elevator building, but to be included in something that extends to a bigger audience is so exciting. Being a part of 14C is an incredible honor.