Alice Neel: The Vicissitudes of Fate
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
through August 1, 2021
I do not pose my sitters. I do not deliberate and then concoct… Before painting, when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose, which in a way involves all their character and social standing – what the world has done to them and their retaliation.Alice Neel
Written by Gary Brewer
The Alice Neel show is brilliant. It is the second time in the last few years that I have been fortunate enough to see a major exhibition of her work. The first time was a completely unexpected treat at the Van Gogh Foundation in Arles, France.
Neel is an artist that I have loved for decades. The unflinching portraits speak directly to the heart. Her need to capture something true about the human condition motivated and guided her vision with a soul on fire.
Years ago when I was absorbing everything I could about art history, I would visit libraries and read back issues, well into1960’s and early 1970’s of Art in America and Art Forum- magazines that at the time I felt were important. I will never forget a review of Alice Neel that was written in a scathingly derisive tone as being “anachronistic and retrograde”. This sentiment was mirrored in the interaction Neel had with Henry Geldzahler, the chief curator at the Metropolitan Museum. During a sitting for his portrait, Neel asked if he would include her in a show Geldzahler was curating, to which he disdainfully replied, “Oh, so you want to be a professional?”
Though she used a scalpel to cut through the mirage of self and capture something true and unflinching about her subjects; she also injected a sense of humor and an expansive and generous curiosity in her search to discover something unique from each interaction with her sitters.
In her portraits, people seem to wear their personalities like they wear their clothes. The styles of a look, or of a time, or the circumstances of their lives are reflected in the attitudes that they convey or in the clothes they wear. Many of her sitters are nude, revealing a stark naked honesty to the interaction between the artist and the model. I have always felt that a wonderful two-person exhibition would be Alice Neel and Diane Arbus. Each artist seemed to have a deep need to connect to the otherness of their subjects, to see something of themselves through empathy or as a reflection of the discomfort that they felt in the world. Neel said of her work, “Whether I’m painting or not, I have this overweening interest in humanity. Even if I am not working, I’m still analyzing people.”
What I find fascinating is how cultural tastes that are shaped by bias can profoundly affect one’s judgment and perception, and how they can change through time to reveal that which was before our very eyes: the work of a brilliant artist.
As a female artist born in 1900, Alice Neel was not taken seriously as a painter until she was in her early 70’s. That she was a portrait painter working in a realist tradition was another disadvantage that kept her brilliance obscured and sidelined from an art world that was enthralled with the achievements of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism and so on.
To say that painting realist portraits during this time was far from the zeitgeist of the era is an understatement. However, her determination and the truths that she knew her paintings captured about the human condition, were undeterred. She said of her paintings “ Like Chekov, I am a collector of souls.”
After years spent outside of the art world, in the early 1960’s Alice Neel became a fixture on the scene. She began painting portraits of the artists, critics, curators and the various personalities that inhabited the cultural world New York. Robert Smithson, Andy Warhol, Annie Sprinkle and many other denizens of the art world became her subjects. In an interview she once said that she deliberately changed the style of her painting to incorporate the changing styles of clothes that people wore. In this way her paintings became in a sense, a form of social anthropology, revealing something about the character of the times she was living in as well as the character of her subjects.
In her later years, her paintings also became more open, leaving large areas of the canvas bare so that the viewer could fill in the space. Formally, it worked to lighten the paintings up, and gave her marvelous palette more breathing room to express a more abstract and expressive character than the earlier paintings, where the interiors were more fully depicted.
As the 1970’s approached, feminist artists such as Irene Peslikis, began championing her work and seeing in her art, a feminist vision as well as the work of a politically conscious artist- depicting people of color from different socio-economic circumstances. Her feminist journal Women & Art helped to promote Neel, and gain more recognition for her paintings. Indeed, in the exhibition, her portrait of Peslikis, A Marxist Girl, is a powerful and striking image. The way she positions her body: one leg draped with a casual air over the arm of the chair, her hand reaching up to hold the top of the chair behind her head- revealing her unshaved armpit: there is a nod to Matisse in this pose. The gaze in her eyes conveys strength and vulnerability, and the deeply saturated colors bring a depth and fullness to the subjective force of her personality.
But ultimately during her lifetime, I believe that it was her nude self-portrait at the age of eighty that really brought Neel the acclaim she had long deserved. In it, one can sense her power and honesty. Below, I wrote these words that came to me as I stood before her self-portrait, channeling the thoughts that I felt she might have been communicating in this marvelous painting filled with humor, confidence and a sublime wit.
I sit naked on my chair, a paintbrush in my hand, like a scepter of some domain over which I reign, or a magic wand with which I part the clouds of illusion and reveal the interior life of my subjects. Though gravity and time pull at my body- my sagging breasts and the weight of my eighty years of existence cascading downwards- my soul is upright, my mind is a clarion note that pierces through the vanity of self. I look out at you through the decades and I say, I am an artist who has outlived vapid passing trends, and despite the efforts of critics and naysayers who have tried to nullify my truth, I now stand before you, knowing that you too can see my accomplishments. People come first, and the interior life of a person stands through time as a subject worthy of the highest regard in painting.
What I find most fascinating about this moment- when the depth of her accomplishment is being seen with fresh eyes- is how a return to portraiture has elevated and clarified the profound human complexity which her paintings achieved. As many young artists, and especially young African American artists, have brought this once maligned genre back into the fore, often with a definitive political ethos, Alice Neel is finally seen in a new light.
It is always fascinating to see the vicissitudes of fate ebb and flow through time and change the way that we see something- something that was always there. And it is especially lovely that someone who gave so much of herself to her work is now revered for her brilliant contribution.
When I visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York to see this show, the galleries were filled with people looking long and hard at these paintings. It was like a conversation was taking place, one that has lasted for millennia but has never grown old.
Alice Neel: People Come First
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028
Guggenheim Bilbao, September 17, 2021–January 23, 2022
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, March 12, 2022–July 10, 2022.