The End of the Art-Baby Problem

Unsurprisingly, Neel fell in love anyway: with Carlos Enríquez, a sexually sophisticated, wealthy Cuban man, who wanted to be an artist himself and supported her ambition, up to a point. Their first daughter was born in Cuba the day after Christmas in 1926, and after a few months in her in-laws’ “gilded cage,” Alice and Carlos set up home in New York. It was, however, “too early in the world’s history for household equality,” as Phillips puts it, which is another way of saying that Neel’s husband, for all his bohemian posturing, was a man of his time, and would not do a woman’s domestic work. They were taking turns painting, but they needed money, and someone had to cook, clean, and take care of the baby. When their daughter sickened in the depths of the New York winter and died just before her first birthday, Neel’s guilt and grief twisted into an irrepressible drive for another child. Eleven months later, a second daughter was born, to a mother still lost in depression and desperation, still unable to reconcile what she called “this awful dichotomy” between her baby and her art.

Enríquez, grieving himself, took the new baby to his family in Havana, promising Neel that they would all reunite and go to Paris together. Instead, without telling her, he went alone, leaving the baby with his mother and sisters. In rage and despair, Alice collapsed. After almost a year of hospitalization, and doctors who insisted she choose between art and motherhood, she chose art, and made her way to Greenwich Village, while her daughter remained in Cuba. It was the start of the Depression, and Alice made portraits of the struggling, ordinary people she met in the neighborhood, imbuing them with sympathy and humanity. The WPA’s Art Project paid her, along with thousands of other artists, a living wage simply to produce and regularly submit her paintings. (“Socialism is kinder to mothers than capitalism,” Phillips notes.) Her relationships with men were turbulent, but in an effort of “family-making at the last minute,” around her fortieth birthday, she had two sons with two different fathers , and raised them in a cheap apartment in Spanish Harlem. Her social-realist portraits fell out of fashion during the macho abstract expressionist years, but she held on, always struggling for money, until late in her life she was hailed and celebrated. Her sons and daughters-in-law supported her work and burned her legacy, but she was never able to repair the rift with her daughter.

The problem visual artists face has a physical dimension: They need space, as well as time. Following Neel, Phillips gives us glimpses of artist-mothers including Faith Ringgold, Louise Bourgeois, and sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who described raising her four children “in the middle of the dust and the dirt and the paint and everything.” Writers, on the face of it, have it easier, free to work anywhere, like Audre Lorde, scribbling “on scraps of paper that she stashed in [her daughter] Beth’s diaper bag, ”or Toni Morrison, with her notebook on the passenger seat, writing in the stoplight pause. Yet it can be harder to claim the time you need, and to battle your own self-doubt. Are you really creating something that matters enough to neglect your baby? What about the time you have to spend staring into space? And what if nobody wants the story you write?

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