Alice Neel, Artist of the People
By Arthur Stampleman
The first New York museum retrospective in 20 years of American artist Alice Neel opened last month at The Metropolitan Museum and is here until August 1. “Alice Neel: People Come First” is a wonderful exhibit to take in after a dearth of museumgoing opportunities during the pandemic.
Neel (1900-1984) was known for her portraits depicting friends, family, lovers, poets, artists, and strangers. The Met positions Neel as one of the century’s most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art. As Neel acknowledged, “For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”
The exhibition spans the entirety of Neel’s career, from her professional launch in Cuba in the 1920s and her work as part of the W.P.A. in the 1930s, through her path to making the human figure central.
Her focus on the figure was in sharp contrast to the growing importance of abstraction, but her expressionistic use of line and color, psychological acumen, and emotional intensity were within the range of the social realists.
The exhibit presents 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors and interprets the artist’s work in eight sections, each highlighting her engagement with key subjects that reoccur over her career.
New York City: Neil lived much of her life in New York City. Her work reflected early encounters with leftists, WPA work, the condition of the poor, and the complexity and dynamism of urban life.
Home: All her residences did double duty, serving as both home and studio. They function as settings for her pictures of people, the erotic, family, and the inner world.
Counterculture: Over the years, her subjects included artists, activists, civil rights leaders, and celebrities who came into her orbit. This was one of my favorite sections because it was the first time I’d ever been in a museum and seen a portrait of someone I knew. Henry Geldzahler and I met seven decades ago at summer camp. He was instrumental in establishing the Department of Contemporary Art at The Met.
The Human Comedy: Here Neel’s attention is on her subjects’ physical and psychological vulnerabilities. This gives the paintings an unmistakable sadness, reinforced by her often-restrained palette.
Art as History: This was another favorite section of mine. It places select paintings by Neel in dialogue with a group of works drawn from The Met collection (Robert Henri, Vincent van Gogh, Jacob Lawrence, and more) which she visited regularly. I cannot recall other exhibits showing how other artists might have impacted the artist.
Motherhood: Here we see images of mothers at all stages of maternity, both pre- and post-partum, and such works are among her most radical. Frank and concrete, her paintings and drawings dramatize with equal parts candor and empathy the challenge of bearing and raising children.
The Nude: Paintings of both men and women, including her first self-portrait, which she produced in 1980 when she was in her 80s.
Good Abstract Qualities: Neel refused to abandon her representational approach, even as Abstract Expressionism became popular. But late in life she said all great paintings had “good abstract qualities” and technical experimentation, including elements with negative space, can be seen in her work.
The museum is open, with entry by timed ticket or reservation. Physical distancing, masks, and temperature checks required. Log on to https://www.metmuseum.org/visit/plan-your-visit .