Alive Still: Nell Blaine, American Painter
(Oxford University Press, 2019)
When painter Nell Blaine was just 37 years old, she was almost completely paralyzed from the neck down, after the start of a burgeoning career in the downtown New York City art scene. Yet that’s not the closing chapter of Alive Still: Nell Blaine, American Painter, the recently published first biography of this lesser-known postwar American artist, which chronicles Blaine’s five-decade career. Blaine never presented herself as a disabled artist. “She didn’t want it to be part of her artistic legacy,” said one of her assistants. “She wanted to be known as a free person.” Her creative journey was clearly not over at the time of that medical crisis in 1959, when she contracted the severest form of polio while on a trip to the Greek island of Mykonos.
In fact, Alive Still author Cathy Curtis wasn’t aware of Blaine’s inspiring story of surmounting physical handicaps when she first bought a monograph of the artist’s colorful landscapes and still lifes, years ago. “I was initially drawn to Blaine because of her work,” Curtis told me via email. “But as I learned more about her life, I became aware that the narrative of the biography was more fascinating than I had realized, splitting her life into 37 pre-polio and 37 post-polio years.”
In that vein, Blaine’s paraplegic condition is not the primary narrative of her biography, it is a line item on the list of challenges facing a woman artist painting unpopular subjects in a realist style during the height of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Curtis, whose previous biographies have been of women artists who were Blaine’s contemporaries—Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning—describes the artist’s story as a lens into the life of a mid-20th century female painter. “I think my books draw attention to the complexities of life as an American woman artist during [the postwar period of American art] and demonstrate the range of attitudes and behaviors that leading women artists held and exhibited,” said Curtis.
Blaine spent the pre-polio half of her life between her hometown of Richmond, Virginia and her adopted home of New York City. Blaine was encouraged to take evening art classes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. (That museum is now, coincidentally, one of the only public places to see Blaine’s paintings, which are mostly hidden from view in private collections or the storage rooms of major museums.) Spurred by her art teacher, Blaine left for New York at age 20 with a suitcase, portfolio, and all $90 of her savings. She studied under legendary painter Hans Hofman and supported herself doing odd jobs: attaching monogrammed initials to alligator purses at the Lord & Taylor department store, delivering false teeth to elderly peoples’ homes, and painting neckties. By night she was a social butterfly in the downtown art scene, hobnobbing with fellow painters like Larry Rivers and Robert De Niro, and studying jazz (even learning how to drum).
She started out as an abstract artist, and had her first solo show just three years after arriving in Manhattan exhibiting large scale canvases packed with blocks of color, black biomorphic shapes, and thick outlines. Her successes snowballed: she was singled out in a review of a 1956 group show by notable art historian Leo Steinberg; she was profiled in a 1957 LIFE magazine article about women artists alongside Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell; in 1959 the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired one of her paintings, a jewel-toned interior scene showing a dining table dressed with a green tablecloth and set against four window panels with a view of the Gloucester harbor. Her star—and earnings—were on the rise, enabling her to make a 1959 painting trip to Greece, where unfortunately she would contract polio, forcing her into rehab for eight months. Among other things Blaine was told she could no longer do, she was informed that she’d never paint again.
This was unacceptable to Blaine, who could still use some muscles in her left hand and arm, and her right-hand fingers. Painting was more crucial to her than regaining the ability to walk, so she focused all of her physical rehabilitation on retraining her left hand (effectively resigning herself to spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair). Within two years, she could paint with her left hand and sketch with her right. However, she could no longer work on the monumental canvases she had in her youth because of the technical challenges. Her subject matter was limited, making still lifes (often dismissed as inferior to other genres) her most accessible subject since she could easily paint tablescapes and flower bouquets in a wheelchair at home.
The biography is named for one of Blaine’s later still life watercolors, Alive Still (1991), depicting a bouquet in a green ceramic vase. The flowers confined to the vase are drooping, while one fresh blossom lays alone on the table, seemingly asserting its vitality. The lone flower may be a metaphor for Blaine herself, who didn’t want to be pigeonholed as withered. She considered herself pulsating and vivacious. “I can’t stand up, but I can go on,” she once said. “My painting comes first; it’s a life or death matter.”
To tell a more complete story of Blaine’s life and art than the one she had read years ago, Curtis studied the artist’s journals, which exposed details about Blaine’s bisexuality, financial difficulties, and daily physical challenges. She also conducted interviews with people in Blaine’s inner circle, such as her longtime lover, Carolyn Harris.
“[Blaine] certainly has been overlooked,” noted Curtis, “but the fact is, she painted in an unfashionable style. I am not making a claim for her as a leading painter of the period.” Blaine’s colorful landscapes—painted with loose yet controlled brushstrokes, and sometimes as many as 38 different colors in a single painting—were out of favor during her lifetime, and though she managed to support herself with her art, she didn’t resume her pre-polio successes. Curtis does believe, though, that Blaine was one of America’s best watercolorists, in addition to having a life story that deserved telling.