Alice Neel: People Come First—A major retrospective of the American painter

Alice Neel: People Come First, exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, March 22–August 1, 2021

Nearly four decades after her death, American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) has received the major museum retrospective she has long deserved, Alice Neel: People Come First, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Neel painted over the course of six decades, for the most part, until the last 20 years of her life, in relative obscurity. Her vibrant, idiosyncratic portraits are characterized above all by their candor and keen observation, which were at times unflattering but rarely without insight.

Neel’s “Human Comedy,” as she thought of her work, was conceived along the lines of French novelist Honoré de Balzac’s series of interconnected novels (1829–1848) by that title, which depicted every social class. Through choosing sitters among bohemians in Greenwich Village, the working class in Spanish Harlem, labor activists and Communist Party leaders of the 1940 and ‘50s and art world figures of the 1960 and ‘70s, Neel aimed to give a representative portrait of American society in her era.

Two Girls, Spanish Harlem, Alice Neel, 1959, oil on canvas

The most powerful aspect of her paintings, however, tends not to be their representative, but their original quality. Her nudes of pregnant women, in particular, are unprecedented in the history of art. Though pregnant women are obviously a fact of life, their presence for the most part either has gone unnoticed or been ignored in art. So to be confronted, for instance, by Neel’s Margaret Evans Pregnant (1979),whose subject gazes wide-eyed and grips the too-small taboret upon which she balances with a belly that seems to have taken over her entire frame, is quite unusual. Neel’s best work has this quality of looking at everyday life anew.

“I tried to capture life as it went by—art records so much, the feeling, the beliefs, the changes,” Neel wrote. “One of the reasons I painted was to catch light as it goes by, right hot off the griddle. Now that doesn’t mean that the work has to tell about your life, I mean it can be abstract or anything, but the vitality is taken out of real living.

The Met exhibition organizes Neel’s work into themes: New York City, Home, Counter/Culture, The Human Comedy, Art As History, Motherhood, the Nude, and Good Abstract Qualities. Helpful to a certain extent, this choice of organization by theme at times jumbles Neel’s work, making it more difficult to discern the overall trajectory of her artistic effort and its development in historically specific phases. Nevertheless, the show is an excellent opportunity to see all aspects of Neel’s work, from the lesser known watercolors of private moments with lovers, paintings of her children with herself at the easel mirrored in the background, cityscapes from her apartment window, along with the portraits painted in the 1960 and ‘70s for which she finally achieved recognition.

Margaret Evans Pregnant, Alice Neel, 1978, oil on canvas

Born in 1900, Neel was aware as an adult that her own life spanned a turbulent century, and one can see her life and work developing in sync with it in several phases. As a young woman in the 1920s, she rejected the conventional expectations of her middle-class family in the small town of Colwyn, Pennsylvania, to do the only thing she wanted to do, which was to paint by enrolling at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design) in 1921. She then plunged into Havana’s burgeoning avant-garde art scene in the late 1920s with fellow artist Carlos Enríquez, the scion of a wealthy Cuban family, whom she met at a summer art workshop and eventually married.

However, upon the couple’s return to Greenwich Village, the brutal reality of bohemian poverty resulted in the death of her first child from diphtheria. The desertion of Enríquez and his removal of the couple’s second child to be better cared for by relatives back in Cuba led to suicide attempts on Neel’s part and her hospitalization in 1930. These experiences give the Well Baby Clinic (1928-1929) and Futility of Effort (1930) a searing personal edge. The former, a cramped scene of frenzied mothers and squirming infants, looks more like an asylum than a place of well-being, while the Matisse-like simplicity of the latter starkly understates the trauma involved in a child’s needless death from poverty.

Pat Whalen, Alice Neel, 1935, oil, ink, and newspaper on canvas

While rooted in intensely private experience, Neel considered these works, along with others such as the spare drawing Men from Bleecker Street (1933) and Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation (1933), to have broader significance, reflecting the impact of the Great Depression on masses of middle- and working-class people. She herself developed left-wing views in the 1930s. Futility of Effort was reproduced under the name Povertyin 1936 in the left-wing periodical Art Front and exhibited in 1938 at ACA Galleries—dedicated to showing progressive political American art—alongside scenes of evictions and images of railroad workers and political activists.

Alice Neel: People Come First—A major retrospective of the American painter

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