Natural Talent

June 18, 2014

Anne Neely’s landscape-inspired semiabstract works invite reflection on the beauty and fragility of our environment.

Text by Louis Postel


Remember that falling-out, back in 2001, between Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections? Franzen had worried publicly that only women would buy his book if they saw Oprah’s priceless stamp of approval on its cover. That resulted in his being famously disinvited to appear on her show.

Ten years later, Franzen wrote an insightful essay on Boston-based painter Anne Neely, whose paintings were the first he’d ever acquired by a stranger. He is as quick to dispel any typecasting of her as an environmental activist first and a painter second as he was to negate any notions about himself as a “women’s writer.”

Even if the visual vocabulary of Neely’s canvases includes polluted aquifers and rivers, industrial waste, and oil spills, we should not marginalize her as some sort of eco-propagandist. Indeed, the genius of Neely’s paintings, Franzen wrote, is to pull viewers in with their constant state of “happening.” He noted that their “visual rhythms reinforce this flickering dynamic, this never-just-one-thing effect.”

Consider, for example, Beneath, a large oil painting that seduces us and enchants us with the visual rhythms Franzen admires—those parading dots and rectangles, circles and squares—but offers something else, too: a shadow, a foreboding. We wander a golden field, a Van Gogh in rich vibrancy, but down in the lower third of the canvas there’s a new, flat ­perspective in the style of Cezanne. There, Neely has placed a cutaway to a hidden aquifer. And in those bluish paint strokes something troubles the sight: floating blots of oil or some other possible form of pollution, edged by reflections of the trees above, but now oddly tormented in shape.

In Peak, a thinly painted (read: vulnerable) town flickering in the twilight nestles behind a foreground of eggplant-colored, spotty water. How safe are we? one might ask. Neely backs off from providing an answer, leaving us to invent our own stories.

“I am a painter first, not a politician,” says Neely. “But if in the process of creating these paintings a story is revealed about concern for water, its peril or preciousness, or the impending disappearance of beauty in our blindness toward the environment, then I have been a vehicle for that message.”

Neely came to Boston from Connecticut with her husband in 1974. She soon found a job that turned into a long labor of love teaching art at Milton Academy. Only recently did she retire to devote herself to painting full-time. Although she began her career as a landscape painter, Neely’s interior landscape—her spirit—began weaving itself into her work most prominently after 9/11. “I felt I couldn’t go out in the landscape full of the same kind of innocence, that the innocence had been broken,” she says. “I felt compelled inward, wanting to paint from a place of gratitude and meaning, not strictly from observation.”

Susan Stoops, curator of contemporary art at the Worcester Art Museum, refers to Beneath in describing Neely’s work. “It’s a great example of the way Anne creates these strata of experiences of the landscape—its multiple layers as she applies pigment, devoting at least part of the image to something we wouldn’t necessarily see, an entire universe out of details, a cluster of marks,” Stoops says. “In that sense, we experience her work as having as much to do with the paint as the subject itself.”

Stoops points out that “Neely uses her brush strokes as building blocks of paint, arranging them in such a way as to allow viewers the freedom to move through space, to go through a process of self-discovery without being manipulated.”

Neely’s energy is so “happening” that one keeps imagining what’s transpiring far beyond the edges of her canvases. That’s why she suggests her paintings be left unframed. Why, in any case, would you want to interfere with the flow of her work, that unclassifiable “flickering dynamic” that is the source of life itself? •

Editor’s Note: To see more of Anne Neely’s work, visit Neely is represented by Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, New York City,

Water, Water Everywhere

Peak and Beneath are among the works in a multimedia exhibit called “Anne Neely Water Stories: Conversations in Paint and Sound” at the Museum of Science in Boston. The exhibit includes lectures, films, and an audio component in collaboration with sound artist Halsey Burgund. Neely’s paintings explore the beauty and potential dangers of water as well as our relationship with this crucial element of our environment. “The importance of water to our homes and communities becomes increasingly apparent,” says David Rabkin, Farinon Director for Current Science and Technology at the museum. “Anne’s work can help enrich that understanding.” The exhibit runs from mid-July through December 2014, at the Museum of Science, Boston, (617) 723-2500,

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