The language of art; Alice Neel, by Patricia Hills. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 207 pp. $30. Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters, edited by Mark Strand. New York: Clarkson N. Potter. Distributed by Crown Publishers. 240 pp. $50.
Periodically, an artist will also be an accomplished speak-er or writer. Painters as diverse as Vincent van Gogh, Robert Henri, and Paul Klee are still read for their ideas on art. Frank Stella is giving much-publicized lectures.
Two recent books provide not only excellent reproductions but also the artists' own words about their lives and works.
The late Alice Neel was one of this country's iconoclastic painters. Totally ignoring the surface trends in art, she went her own way. Living a Bohemian existence, she developed from a WPA painter with heavy leftist overtones into one of the finest portrait painters. Hers were not social portraits, but X-rays of character, shocking in their honesty. Few corporate presidents or society matrons could have borne such intense honesty of depiction.
''I don't do realism. I do a combination of realism and expressionism. It's never just realism,'' Ms. Neel said in one of her tape-recorded comments. ''The work of the New Realists is boring to me because of no psychological acumen, they don't show a soul out in the world of doing things.''
Such remarks, sensitively compiled and edited by Patricia Hills, give an insightful picture of how the artist felt about her life and work. One can't help but be affected and moved by Alice Neel's vision. She was bold and honest when those were not feminine adjectives. Nothing deterred her from portraying on canvas after canvas what she saw and felt.
Ms. Neel's views on the new realism aside, ''Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters'' is a glossy and attractive showcase for a varied group of realist painters. All are successful and widely known. The high-quality reproductions in this beautiful book are accompanied by transcripts of the artists speaking of their work, as edited by Mark Strand.
It is fascinating to read the variety of intellectual approaches to painting within this group. Icelandic artist Louisa Matthiasdottir depicts simple, bold landscapes in strong color. She says, ''As to painting, I start painting and that's about it.'' Alex Katz is known for his posterized paintings of the sophisticated urban world. Can one be surprised that he is more concerned with style and appearance than with what things mean?
Philip Pearlstein paints the female nude in harsh, unrelenting light set in stark backgrounds. He avers, ''I've deliberately tried not to be expressive about the models I've been painting for almost twenty years now, not to make any comment but just to work at the formal problems of representational painting in relation to picture structure.''
On the other hand Jane Freilicher is emotionally involved with her subject. ''I try to retain a kind of sensation of flux, of having just looked at something and found it beautiful, without having analyzed why it was so.''
It is revealing and educational to read what writers - and that includes the artists themselves - have to say about art. But the primary language of art is still line, shape, form, color, and texture. Even reproductions in art books of this quality speak in ways commentary can't. In the end, art is a matter of seeing. Bernard Berenson said, ''We must look and look till we live the painting and for a fleeting moment become identified with it.''