I finally caught up with Woodmere Art Museum’s “Our Town” retrospective of the work of the late Edith Neff on a drizzly, dark, depressing Philadelphia day recently and I was instantly energized. Neff’s big, heavily populated paintings and pastels show Philadelphia places and people in meticulous detail, vivid colors, and with enormous vitality.
Their vibrant depictions of the city as it existed toward the end of the 20th century were realistic but hopeful. Even our narrow streets, rundown playgrounds, and neglected parks offer paths to transcendence — a brush with the Olympian.
Neff (1943–1995) enlisted family, friends, fellow artists, and total strangers to enact highly specific, if ambiguous, moments in urban life that both celebrated the city as it was and offered a vision of how it could be better.
If you have lived in Philadelphia for any length of time, you have probably seen her work. But Woodmere’s retrospective, which includes more than 50 pieces and is on view until Jan. 19, offers an opportunity to consider in depth both a notable artist and the life of the city that was one of her chief subjects.
Neff was born here, and she spent her childhood in a house a couple of blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She studied at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), where she subsequently taught for many years. Even as a student she won attention for her paintings, which throughout her career she based on photographs.
Later, she was on the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She died at the age of 52, after a long bout with cancer.
She embraced the label of realist painter; it is, after all, the Philadelphia tradition handed down by Thomas Eakins and his predecessors. But it is clear that her work also tapped into an older tradition of civic allegories and historic lessons — exemplified by works such as Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians — that situate a morally defining event in a familiar landscape.
Swimming Pool at Hunting Park (1975-76) is a canvas of near-monumental size about a subject that seems commonplace, a municipal swimming pool in high summer. Like many of her other large-scale works, it includes figures who look directly at the viewer and make them part of the scene. This one includes a boy who seems to be walking right out of the painting into the viewer’s space. Some of the photographs she took of this scene survive, so we know that this work is a composite of things she observed.
But it seems equally clear that this view of matter-of-fact interracial harmony is a kind of Peaceable Kingdom, a vision of a better world to come. As she was working on this painting, Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, whose political career stoked racial polarization, was running for and then beginning his second term as the city’s mayor. Could Philadelphia be better than Rizzo and some of his supporters thought it was? This painting says yes.
Rizzo remarked during that campaign that he was going to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” I couldn’t help thinking about that when I saw Figures in the Park with Passing Shower (1976). This picture shows Harry Soviak, an artist who was Neff’s close friend, with his partner Vincent D’Aquila and their Dalmatian, Oliver. Fairmount Park’s lawn is weedy, but every plant and blade of grass feels individual and alive. But most of all, this is a family portrait of a new kind of family.
Later, Neff did a portrait just of Oliver, the dog. A Dalmatian is about as black and white as you can get. Yet if you look at the painting you see that the dog’s coat contains a whole spectrum of subtle colors. The fierce contrast of black and white is an illusion. Her treatment of the dog’s coat was the product of close observation, to be sure, but it seems also to be a statement.
Neff relied on photographs to give a sense of the randomness of reality. Why, in The Factory is Burning and Clouds of Smoke Obscure the Sky (1972) is a youth in the foreground yawning? It seems an odd response to the full-block conflagration.
Nevertheless, there he is, in one of the pictures Neff took of the scene. (Later, I would move into a house built on the site of the blaze; Neff’s work seems always to be so close to home.)
Despite Neff’s reliance on photography, her works are not photo-realistic. Many are based on multiple photographs, and especially in those that show her family, the figures seem to be living in separate worlds, in part because they came from different photographs.
All the photos she used were black and white. They helped her with detail and with composition, but her choice of color, while generally realistic, was her own. It’s possible in most of her pieces to track down locations and street addresses, yet her Philadelphia places always seem a little more intense in her art than they are in real life.
In addition to oil painting, Neff was a master of pastels. During the early 1990s, she did several pastels of local public sculpture, including Night Horses (1993), which shows the seahorse fountain near the Fairmount Waterworks. At the time, all the sculptures she depicted were suffering from neglect. Now, fortunately, after restoration, they look almost as good as they do in Neff’s pastels.
Her work was never entirely realistic, of course. In Allegory (1974-5), she places a nude young man and a randy looking goat on the Atlantic City beach, just in front of the palatial Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, which was demolished a few years later. It’s not quite clear what the allegory is, except that beaches are sexy. But she liked painting muscular young male nudes, as a sort of compensation for the way women had long been handled by male painters.
Later, as in Demeter Searching for the Lost Persephone (1986), part of a series, she addressed the kind of mythological subject associated with the old masters. But the figures in the paintings are Philadelphians, wearing their own clothes, posed in local settings. Wherever we are, the mythical and the magical are right next door.
Our Town: A Retrospective of Edith Neff
Through Jan. 19 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m. with extended hours Fridays until 8 and Saturdays until 6.
Admission: Adults, $10; seniors, $7; children and students free. Free to all on Sundays.