New York Magazine
The Met’s Alice Neel survey is a must-see blockbuster of portraiture
A survey of her portraits at the Met is packed with raw emotional power.
alice neel was the painter par excellence of New York’s human comedy. She rendered friends, sons, lovers, strangers, addicts, activists, self-anointed shamans, cultural kings and queens, the magical, the lost, and the damned in keyed-up, high harmonies of color. She often outlined people in an electric blue that makes every individual vibrate like an archetype. Her gaze is loving but predatory; she seems to feel with her subjects but never fully for them. This connects to her contemporary Andy Warhol—though instead of Warhol’s candy-colored depictions of the rich and famous, Neel mostly made portraits of our fellow beaten ships of the human soul. I love her work.
In March, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its magnificent survey “Alice Neel: People Come First” with more than 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors made from the 1920s until Neel’s death in 1984. By now, she is beatified, almost a fridge-magnet artist like
Frida Kahlo—someone whom the New York Times in 2017 dubbed “one of America’s most inventive and peculiar portraitists.” (I’d delete peculiar and replace it with epic.) The Met show is as close as we’re going to get to a mustsee blockbuster in our socially distanced, timed-admission covid moment.
Neel’s story is not only one of great talent but of artistic courage, persistence, and will. Over the course of her life, the painter—who was born in 1900—moved to Cuba then New York, took and shed lovers, became a communist and an ardent civil-rights supporter, was on and off the WPA, was supported by men and supported some, had a nervous breakdown, lived downtown and uptown, was in mixed-race relationships, lost one child then had three more, and never stopped painting. This even though she barely sold a thing and received little recognition until the late 1960s.
A wonderful show could be mounted of all of Neel’s many subjects: her interi
ors, still lifes, landscapes, cityscapes, and symbolist works. But the primary subject of the Met show is her portraiture. The work is installed nonchronologically by themes like “Home,” “The Human Comedy,” “New York City,” “Motherhood,” and “The Nude.” In that last section, don’t miss the rascally Joe Gould from 1933, a portrait of the emaciated Greenwich Village character with a Lenin goatee and leering eyes, seated naked on a stool with his knees spread to display three onion-headed uncircumcised penises and three scrota. On his left and right are attendant figures with bulbous male genitalia. In smaller works, see a postcoital Neel in bed with her lover or sitting on a toilet as a man with a semi-erection urinates into the sink. As curator Helen Molesworth has quipped, Alice “liked dick.”
When a whole new art world erupted in New York in the 1950s and Abstract Expressionism took the global stage, Neel was passed over. She said abstraction had “pushed all the other pushcarts off the street.” In the late ’50s and early ’60s, other movements took hold, but Neel was never included. She watched as her fellow figurative artists—male peers like Alex Katz and Lucian Freud—came to prominence. In 1959, at the suggestion of her shrink, Neel screwed up her courage and began asking downtown art-world figures to sit for her in her uptown living-room studio. She painted trans performers, famous writers and critics, soldiers, museum guards, and alpha curators. Sitting for Neel’s portraits must have been exhausting: Her subjects recall her continuous patter, the tales of her sex life, and being lulled into submission, some removing more and more clothing until they ended up naked. Neel said she so identified with her subjects that “when I paint them, when they go home I feel frightful. I have no self—I have gone into this other person.”
In 1970, she painted the greatest portrait ever made of Warhol, which is on view at the Met. Rather than giving us the cool character with sunglasses, Neel shows Auntie Andy, seated on a barely sketched-in bench, stripped naked to the waist, wig a-muss, eyes closed, and face rutted, with sagging breasts, scars, sutures, and corset visible. (He had been shot by Valerie Solanas two years before.) Neel knew exactly what she was doing in these uptown sessions. She was preserving, pinning, and vivisecting these personages like insect specimens, devouring them for her own ends. (Are these revenge pictures?) When she painted the Met curator Henry Geldzahler in 1967, she ventured that maybe he would include her in an upcoming show. It must have killed her when he coolly replied, “Oh, so you want to be a professional?”
When Neel finally began to get more attention—including a retrospective at the Whitney Museum when she was 74—New York Times critic Hilton Kramer blasted her as “not the kind of artist whose work can sustain such scrutiny.” He scoffed at her “ineptitudes” and wondered “why so many serious people lend themselves to this unflattering treatment.” Another Times critic, James R. Mellow, cracked that her work was “savage.”
How “savage”? Neel’s nude self-portrait from 1980 stands with Picasso’s 1905–6 portrait of Gertrude Stein. In each, we see a Gibraltar-like woman—monumental, aware, in thought, and with power. “I hate the way I looked … I don’t like my type … my spirit looked nothing like my body,” Neel said. She still revealed it all, picturing herself naked and old in her living room, a human animal with a prehensile toe, breasts resting on her stomach, “flesh dropping off my bones,” holding a paintbrush (“I live for this little thing in my hand,” she said). This painting is hung near the end of the Met show; by the time you see it, you know Neel used that “little thing” in her hand as a stick of dynamite.
Neel’s depiction of her own body capped decades of female nudes painted in ways no man had painted them before. Neel gives us women as real, feeling, everyday Atlases: living, dying, sexual. No one in all of art has ever surpassed her paintings of pregnant women, childbirth (her 1939 Childbirth is the only painting I know of the subject), and mothers with children. These works are tidal forces unto themselves.
Pregnant Maria (1964) gives us a hugely pregnant supine woman on a bed. It’s so confrontational, voluptuous, and challenging we may think of it as Neel’s answer to Manet’s Olympia. And Margaret Evans Pregnant, the first painting inside the Met exhibition, slaps you alert. Neel made it in 1978 at the apex of her powers, as in control of her craft as Ingres was in his last great portraits. Evans’s arms extend straight down as she barely balances on a low, uncomfortable chair, her stomach so enormous it seems to split her upper and lower body. She looks straight at us, clear-eyed, in control yet ambivalent. Even when men are included in these paintings, there’s no mistaking that they are materially, spiritually, and physically outside these women’s kingdoms of existence. The men are drones. The women are the suns of new solar systems.
Neel herself had a difficult history with motherhood: Her first daughter died of diphtheria. Her husband ran off with their second daughter, leaving Neel alone. She later had two sons, whom she was finally able to raise. In her paintings of young mothers nursing or with their children, Neel seems to impart a wisdom gleaned elsewhere only in old-master pictures of the Virgin Mary with her child. Mary had terrible foreknowledge of what was to come; the faces of Neel’s mothers have that same look. See the signs of remorse, despair, incredulity, fear—and a dawning acceptance that their love now exists outside their body and will grow up, become its own ark, do things on its own, and they will not be able to protect it. That this child will one day die.
Sappho allegedly wrote, “What cannot be said will be wept.” That’s what I see in Neel’s paintings. Experienced now at the Met after a full year of loss and social upheaval, her gigantic vision and perseverance and the tragedies of her life tell us we could be heroes like her and the people she painted. It’s easy to recognize her greatness in retrospect when her work is celebrated in a show like this. For most of Neel’s 84 years, though, she was artistically on her own. “I broke all the rules,” she said. ■