“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.” Alice Neel, 1950
Alice Neel (1900 –1984) was a true radical in her life and work. A social justice lefty who walked the walk, she broke all taboos as a woman and artist from her earliest days in the 1920s. In art school she fell in love with and married a Cuban artist, followed him to Cuba, then moved back to New York in 1938, where she remained for the rest of her life. She lived in poverty in Spanish Harlem with a series of men, raised children mostly on her own, and eschewed abstract expressionism – then all the rage – for, as she put it, “the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.” Indeed, no American painter has trained such a psychologically acute yet unsentimental eye on men and women’s bodies, including her own. She was fearless.
Living and working in one space, she talked about and depicted what she called “the awful dichotomy” between her role as mother and artist. However, she had a way of turning a negative into a positive, here creating, for example, a portrait of her younger son, as well as herself, reflected in a mirror, seated and painting the portrait we see.
Neel frequently used her children, grandchildren and other family members as portrait subjects, as well as political activists, labor leaders, gay men, and trans women.
Social and art movements have come and gone, and now her work appears absolutely in tune with everything from the LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter movements, to the return of realism.
Her style and palette are unique, and much like David Hockney, her stunning portraits not only convey their subject but, at times, their era.
The Fuller Brush Man, for example, a portrait of Dewald Strauss, who escaped from a German concentration camp, Dachau, and emigrated to America, captures the eagerness, hopefulness and can-do quality of post-war America. His posture, his sky-blue suit, his bow tie and haircut speak volumes. it’s an astonishing piece of work.
Curtis and Redd were members of Andy Warhol’s circle. Take a look at the sitters’ feet, especially Redd’s big toe poking through her torn stocking. Neel loves to “show it like it is,” whether it’s men’s flaccid penises, women’s exaggerated nipples and bellies in pregnancy or the ravages of bodies in old age.
A less than flattering image of Warhol, after an assassination attempt which left his pale, unathletic body with visible scars.
The boys, Toby and Jeff Neal, painted in Neel’s new apartment on the Upper West Side, appear as curious and bored as any two boys their age. Somehow, she has captured a universal quality of polite sweetness that is the essence of young boyhood.
Maternity is a recurring theme in Neel’s work. It takes a moment to notice that Nancy, her daughter in law, is nursing one of the twins. The scene is captured without sentimentally and is dignified by its frankness.
These two artists, who gave Neel a lift home from a lecture, are openly and tenderly portrayed as a gay couple, at a time when such representations were rare.
Nothing captures Neel’s audacity and lack of vanity as much as this self portrait.
Today, looking at the career-spanning survey of her work, it’s hard to believe that she’s been undervalued by the art world for so many decades. This is the first New York museum retrospective of Alice Neel’s work in 20 years. Don’t miss it. It’s astonishing. Especially for women.
Alice Neel: People Come First
March 22- August 1, 2021
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Text and photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag