Alice Neel is generally thought to be twentieth-century America’s greatest portraitist—an assessment she would likely have rejected as too restrictive. Given her status, it’s little wonder that “Alice Neel: People Come First,” on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through July, may be the most enthusiastically received and is certainly most aptly named exhibition in the Met’s recent history. The show is comprehensive in presenting all aspects of Neel’s work, and the timing is propitious. Neel was declared a major American painter after her 1974 Whitney Museum retrospective, but her current canonization coincides with an increasing attention paid to known but hitherto marginalized, politically-aware women artists. Neel’s Met retrospective is concurrent with the first New York museum survey given to the underappreciated, unclassifiable Niki de Saint Phalle, and another major museum show that argues the centrality of the French-American sculptor and New York School outlier Louise Bourgeois to postwar intellectual trends by anointing her “Freud’s daughter.”
Neel was, to use a much-abused word, a humanist—and not only because she was a figurative painter. Unlike ponderously performative portraitists like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Neel did not objectify her subjects. She looked at them, and very often, they stared back at her. You might call her portraits a frank exchange of views. The gray-eyed woman who is the subject of “Elenka” (1936) could perform laser surgery with the intensity of her gaze. The expression on the face of Neel’s dying mother, bundled in a flannel robe, shrinking back and propped in a chair for “Last Sickness” (1953), is a lacerating blend of fear, reproach and shame. One of the two kids portrayed in “The Black Boys” (1967) is resigned, whereas the other, staring straight at the viewer, makes a challenge of his boredom.
Nearly four decades after her death, Neel reappears as an avatar of art-world diversity. If in 1974, she was hailed as a feminist (another term she uneasily accepted), she now is a woman who shucked off her white middle-class privilege. A hardcore bohemian as well as a dedicated (if eccentric) Communist, Neel spent much of her career in near poverty, living in New York’s Spanish Harlem and painting her children, her lovers and her neighbors. But, paradoxically, after years of obscurity, Neel grabbed the spotlight. By expanding her subjects to include celebrated art-world figures, she became one herself—a shrewdly dotty media personality.
“I like to paint people that have been ruined by the rat race in New York City,” a kittenish, matronly and quick-witted Neel told Johnny Carson when she graced the Tonight Show in February 1984, just a few months before her death. Painting an ethereal-looking Andy Warhol in 1970, two years after he had been shot, Neel emphasized his truss and scarred torso. In a self-portrait that might have been titled “Gravity,” she rendered her naked, eighty-year-old body with a fond absence of schmaltz and a touch of allegory—holding a paint brush in one hand and a rag in the other, presenting herself as Rembrandt might. Still, like many of her nudes, the portrait is essentially: ecce femina. “Frightful, isn’t it?” she remarked to the writer Ted Castle in a 1983 interview. “At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.”
That revolt is amply apparent at the Met, although Neel was hardly a primitive. She looked at paintings as well as people, absorbing ideas from the modernist masters Van Gogh, Munch and, in her window-views, Edward Hopper. Her style, however, is all her own. Given the apparent rapidity with which she worked (at home in her Manhattan tenement apartments), she was a genius sketch artist. There’s an adroit cartoonish quality to many of her canvases. Heads tend to be outsized and pushed forward, in what the art critic Lawrence Alloway described as “cephalic looming.” Features can be slightly lopsided. Hands are elongated but private parts, when they appear, are typically front and center. Other parts can be perfunctory.
The critic Harold Rosenberg, who knew Neel in the 1930s when both were subsisting on stipends from the Federal Art Project, compared her “objective cruelty” to that of the photographer Richard Avedon: “Both artists record what has befallen their subjects or what they have done to themselves. With the imperturbable ruthlessness of nature, but without a trace of personal malice, faces, bodies, postures are induced to speak for themselves.” Neel may have functioned as a camera but she was hardly a photorealist like Chuck Close, and seems to have only rarely if ever worked from photographs.
Neel took her subjects where she found them in her daily life—an amiably grinning door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman, a tormented-looking museum security guard, the Haitian woman who helped clean her home and look after her grandchildren. At the height of her career in the Sixties and Seventies, Neel portrayed art critics, curators, celebrity artists and louche celebrities—not just Warhol but the Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis, as well as the porn-star performance artist Annie Sprinkle—but she had a particular fondness for political activists and, more sensationally, heavily pregnant nudes—sprawled out and heroic.
Some canvases, notably “Black Draftee (James Hunter)” (1965) and “Andy Warhol,” are strategically unfinished, with patches of raw canvas surrounding and even penetrating into the central figures. Backgrounds can be spare, although there are often eye-catching details, like the shiny avocado that pops out of a fruit bowl in “Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian” (1978). “Thanksgiving” (1965) is a dizzying, high-angle view of a plucked turkey in the kitchen sink (Neel painted the occasional still life). Her experimental side is usually placed in the service of her experiential tough-love humanism. The artfully agonized arabesque of “Childbirth” (1939) slangs Picasso’s more gratuitously contorted, hollow-eyed women like a Top 40 answer song: not earth mother, but mother.
Alice Neel was born into a proper old American family in a small Pennsylvania town, attended an all-women’s art school in Philadelphia, then moved with her Cuban husband, also an artist, to Havana. Moving to New York City around the time the stock market crashed, her life fell apart—a child died of diphtheria; her husband deserted her, taking with him their second daughter; she was a hospitalized twice, once for a nervous breakdown and again after an attempted suicide.
Hospital scenes figure in her 1930s paintings—along with urban landscapes and remarkably intimate domestic vignettes. One delightfully free-form watercolor from 1935, “Untitled [Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom],” shows two lovers passing water after sex, she straddling the toilet as she puts up her hair, he urinating into the sink. A sort of Ashcan expressionist, Neel painted Depression-era New York City as a gaudy necropolis. Impassive and monumental, some portraits show the influence of Diego Rivera’s stoical indios; others are enlivened by bits of surrealism. A miniature skeleton pours blood from the heart of the poet Kenneth Fearing, painted in 1935. The notorious “Joe Gould” (1933) is a festival of male organs. Gould, the Greenwich Village’s most publicized boho character—and the author of a famous, never-written “oral history of the world” who went by the moniker Professor Seagull—appears as a demonically grinning demiurge, naked, sporting three penises and attended by two more, one circumcised, one not, courtesy of the headless male torsos on each side of his makeshift throne.
Perhaps Neel’s greatest indecency was her membership in and commitment to the Communist Party, which she joined in 1935 when she, along with many of the future Abstract Expressionists and countless other painters, was employed by the Federal Art Project, and her work was becoming more overtly political. The Met’s exhibition title “People Come First” is taken from a December 1950 article on Neel written by the Daily Worker columnist Mike Gold, America’s most vociferous proponent of proletarian art. In the late Thirties, Neel moved out of Greenwich Village, along with her lover, the Puerto Rican musician, José Negron, and took an apartment in Spanish Harlem. “T.B. Harlem,” her painting of Negron’s hospitalized brother, his emaciated, pain-racked torso partially concealed by a loincloth of hospital bedding, is a social realist pieta. Eventually, the Federal Art Project ended and Negron left, but Neel, who now had a young son, never stopped painting. She went on public assistance and took up with the left-wing filmmaker Sam Brody, with whom she had her fourth child, a second boy.
American abstraction triumphed. Meanwhile, Neel—living in a slum neighborhood represented by Vito Marcantonio, the most left-wing of New York City congressmen—exhibited at the politically-minded ACA Gallery, contributed illustrations to the CP journal Masses & Mainstream, attended blacklisted educator Annette T. Rubinstein’s “Writers and Critics” study group, took courses in Marxism and gave slide lectures at the Jefferson School, and painted a number of Party heroes. Among them were her editors Phillip Bonosky and Mike Gold, schoolteachers, the neighborhood activist Mercedes Arroyo (looking up and off to the side like an angel awaiting her own annunciation) and the writer-actress Alice Childress, beautifully turned out in evening dress. Other paintings included a demonstration to free Willie McGee, an early-fifties Communist Party cause célèbre, and, most likely working from a Life magazine photograph, the funeral of the veteran labor organizer Mother Bloor. Beneath a reproduction of “The Spanish Family” (1943), a gentler riff on Picasso that could be considered an exercise in “get real”-ism wherein, flanked by two young children and holding a baby, a sad-faced Madonna transfixes the viewer with a look of accusatory resignation, Gold proclaimed Neel “a new star of social realism,” not least because she had taken to representing the people of East Harlem.
In the late 1950s, Neel painted her way back into an art world that looked askance at such work. Around the time that she produced two portraits of the critic-poet-curator Frank O’Hara, one flattering and one not, Neel was cast in a motherly role in the Robert Frank-Alfred Leslie-Jack Kerouac Beatnik home movie Pull My Daisy. (“They picked me because I looked like a conventional American type,” she said.) Now sixty, Neel had a new visibility. Younger artists were charmed. Sitting for Alice became a thing. Begun around the same time, her project has a certain affinity to Andy Warhol’s series of three-minute “screen tests.”
In general, Neel’s sixties canvases employ a lighter palette. They are airier, more unfinished. The handling of the paint exudes casual confidence. Not that Neel’s political commitments wavered. She remained concerned with class, racial and gender inequality for the rest of her life, kept a picture of Lenin on the wall and maintained her monumentally unfashionable affection for the Soviet Union, which some turned into an excuse to not take her seriously. (In 1981, she partly financed a show of her works at the Artists’ Union exhibition hall in Moscow.) She painted not only artists but also activists like James Farmer, the head of the Congress of Racial Equality, in 1964, and the militant feminist Irene Peslikis (“Marxist Girl”) in 1972. She went to hear Malcolm X speak, gave money to the Black Panthers and demonstrated against the Metropolitan Museum’s infamous “Harlem on My Mind” show, attacked (not altogether fairly) for an absence of African American, or indeed any, painting.
Neel’s breakthrough Whitney retrospective, in 1974, was generally well received but panned by the right-wing New York Times critic Hilton Kramer. “You must hate your mother,” Neel told Kramer, encountering him at an opening after he insulted her draftsmanship. Doubtless aware of Neel’s politics, Kramer took her art-world portraits personally, complaining that people were “shown to be cruel or pompous or vacant or spaced out or just a little nutty.” (Twenty-five years later, Kramer was still complaining in a piece with the headline “The Mob Loves Alice Neel, But I Think She’s Mean.”) True, Neel used a bit of impasto to enhance the bad skin of the sculptor Robert Smithson in a 1962 portrait, and her 1967 portrait of Met curator Henry Geldzahler, perhaps taken on in a transparent attempt at logrolling, amply communicates the sitter’s discomfort, pinned to a chair like a butterfly under glass.
On the other hand, Neel responded to the anti-glamour of the Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis with “Jackie Curtis as a Boy” (1972), which, given pride of place in the exhibit, has, in Curtis’s imperious posture and suspicious sidelong glance, uncanny echoes of El Greco’s portrait of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, the Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition (also in the Met). We don’t question Jackie, Jackie interrogates us.
Like Neel’s saggy self-portrait, “Alice Neel: People Come First” overflows with human interest. My second time through the exhibit, I found myself standing before the nude portrait of the art critic John Perreault, behind two women of a certain age (more or less my own). We considered Perreault lounging on an unmade bed, a scruffy male odalisque whose regally curved penis rests cushioned on his scrotum. “That painting changed my life,” one woman told the other. “I realized that I had never really looked at my husband.”
Image credit: “T.B. Harlem,” 1940. National Museum of Women in the Arts, gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay. © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York