It’s a curious thing about public art: since it’s rarely a destination in itself, you can pass it by without notice, countless times. In Philadelphia - a city known for its proliferation of public art - a mural can easily blend into the backdrop of daily life, until one day you “find” it, as if for the first time. On the second floor of the Quorum, there is a large-scale painting worth seeking out. Painted by the late Edith Neff, this masterwork of Philadelphia Realism captures a specific moment in the history of the city. It is an ordinary moment, a summer afternoon in a West Philly neighborhood. It is the kind of moment that can easily pass us by. But if you stop and look, you can find intertwining stories, layers of local history, and the story of an exceptional artist with a deep connection to the city of Philadelphia.
The triptych is the largest painting Edith Neff ever created, spanning thirty feet when hung together. It was originally commissioned for the Science Center in 1973. The painting’s new home at Quorum –across the street from its previous home at 3624 Market where it hung until 2006– does not have a wall large enough to hold it, so the panels have been separated into two groups. Now, the figures connect across a shared space, inviting us to walk among them, isolated but together, a common theme in Edith Neff’s work.
The clothing worn by the two dozen figures depicted in the painting may point to the 70s, but the people gathered create a contemporary scene both recognizable and relevant. Edith Neff’s realism celebrates the specificity of careful, lifelong observation from within. The artist was not only raised in the city, she also went to school here, graduating from what is now University of the Arts in 1965 and later teaching there and at PAFA. Edith Neff -who passed away in 1995- explained in an interview: “I’ve always been a Philadelphia artist. These are the streets I grew up in, the people I knew, my own family.”
In addition to family, Edith Neff was known for including neighbors, students and colleagues in her often allegorical paintings. In this mural, the artist’s husband, Albert, is shown striding across the street. Her mother stands on a stoop, clutching a white purse. Edith Neff rarely worked directly from life, preferring the camera to capture fleeting poses that she would later compile and compose into larger tableaus. “Photographs are my way of getting information. Things happen quickly and unexpectedly. With the camera I can catch a specific moment and a specific thing.” For Neff, it was essential that she took the photographs herself to maintain a personal connection.
Working from these black and white photographs, Edith Neff would then create loose studies in pastel to establish the interplay of color in a scene. Once a composition was determined, Neff would draw the figures to-scale directly on the canvas with charcoal and begin painting with an earth green undertone. Edith Neff’s close friend, photographer David Lebe captured the mural at this stage: “I had just dropped by to visit and look at what she was up to, not really planning to make that photograph. The light and the setting were so good and the stage of the painting I thought so interesting, I asked her if I could make some photos, fortunately I had my camera with me.”
David Lebe’s touching portrait of Edith Neff in front of the mural in progress, titled Unphotograph 1, was recently on view in Long Light, his retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Meticulously hand-colored, Lebe’s portrait shows the artist in a paint smeared tee shirt, shoeless, looking directly back at the camera. Unphotograph shares a specificity with Neff’s work — both artists know their subjects deeply and communicate that knowledge through masterfully controlled color. Through their process, we can witness the closeness of their affections, even while sensing the isolation and sensuality. “She was a wonderful person, well liked, warm and easy to be with. Kind of lusty in a low key plain kind of way.”
The photograph was taken in a studio Edith Neff rented for the creation of the mural; the scale of the painting was too large for her usual workspace: the third floor of the modest South Philly row-home she shared with her husband, Albert. Albert was a key figure in Edith’s career; he made her stretchers, acted as her agent, and managed her sales. A pianist and composer, he would show up at openings with a stack of his LPs to sell; Philadelphia artist, Bruce Pollock fondly recalls “A very different time, the 70’s.”
The decade in which this mural was created is an important part of its story. Commissioned in 1973, the piece was a part of a larger cultural plan for the Bicentennial celebration of 1976. The planning of a series of public works at the Science Center marked the beginning of curator Libby Newman’s career in uCity, leading to the creation of the Esther Klein Gallery. Newman orchestrated other recognizable – and often overlooked – works along Market Street for 1976: a sculptural orb by James Lloyd resting on a pillar at the entrance of 3624 Market, an abstracted elephant by Timothy Duffield near the Science Center walkway, Arlene Love’s fragmented golden nose outside of the nearby Monell Center.
These works –having stood the test of time– may now seem to exist outside of it, but the years of planning leading up to the Bicentennial were fraught with conflict in Philadelphia. Frank Rizzo was mayor, and between the on-going struggle for civil rights, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the ramifications of Watergate, the mid-70s was a problematic time to be mounting a patriotic event. When viewed in that context, Edith Neff’s mural resonates with the mission of Science Center, even though it doesn’t portray anything scientific. The mural communicates a parallel cultural narrative, one based on field-observation. Edith Neff’s careful gaze speaks of inclusion, where the neighborhood of West Philadelphia is reflected in its diverse inhabitants and distinctive architecture. Compared to the other works in the bicentennial grouping, Neff’s mural situates the moment geographically and chronologically. It acknowledges the new, while recognizing the culture previously established in West Philadelphia, blocks away from the Science Center. In Edith Neff’s painting, people are seen, and they matter. In her vision of urban cohabitation, the daily lives of people meet on the street — not in an idealized version of harmony, but in the layered, complex blend of isolation and community.
Like this mural, much of Edith Neff’s work has been stored away in recent years,and is only now starting to reemerge. This Fall, The Woodmere Museum- which holds the largest collection of Neff’s works- will be mounting a retrospective entitled Our Town. Organized in a manner that reflects the interconnectedness of Neff’s life and work, the exhibition will include source photos, studies and reflections from her circle of friends and family.
The mural will move once again — to play a temporary but significant part in the retrospective, before returning to its home in West Philadelphia. There will be a variety of public programs around the show, introducing more Philadelphians to this exceptional hometown artist and demonstrating that Edith Neff’s work –although rooted in time– is particularly relevant today. Her distinct brand of regionalism did not shy away from the complexities of urban life. Through the specificity and staging of her painted scenes, Edith Neff conjured a dramatic sense of everyday humanity, seeing people as distinctive individuals, both within and outside of time, so specific they become archetypal.
The artist –who died of cancer at age 52– said, “I always think of paintings as being somehow on an eternal plane, and what I’m trying to do is eternalize one moment. I’m trying to create a kind of dream reality, I guess. And in that sense my paintings are symbolic."
Edith Neff’s timely (and timeless) dream reality is an invitation to slow down and notice - to take note of our surroundings and the people who make up our daily lives.