The Alice Neel: People Come First exhibition is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park, March 22 – August 1, 2021. The exhibition is a full-career retrospective with about a hundred paintings, drawings and watercolors. #MetAliceNeal
Neel (1900-1984) was an American portraitist who is known for painting regular people from the female point of view. She saw the dignity in all people and that’s what she painted.
Her portraiture shows an almost motherly interest that was very different from the female nudes that most portrait artists were making. Her work also contrasted with the abstraction that was trending at the time. She did most of her work in New York City, so that makes her a hometown favorite.
Neel’s portraits are absolutely dripping with humanity. Looking at her work, you almost can’t help wondering where we went wrong. We seem to have lost our humanity without even realizing it, but there is a lot of humanity here on canvas.
A True Artist of the People
The exhibition is divided into eight sections. The first is about New York City itself. You will see some places you recognize and some that are gone. New York is a city that eats its own children (architecturally speaking), so much is gone forever.
Look at the painting. That’s where Ninth Avenue splits into Ninth Avenue and Hudson St at the top of the Meatpacking District. The point of view is right in front of the Old Homestead Steakhouse. Recognize the triangular building across the street? It’s very upscale now, but it used be a wild place. Madonna once shot an erotic video in the S&M club that used to be in the basement. It’s long gone and so is the Ninth Avenue train.
Another section is about the home which we are all a little too familiar with right now, but she captures the little dramas both sacred and profane that occur at home.
The biggest section is about the bohemian characters that used to fill New York City, but are also disappearing. Neel was as regular collaborator with Black rights leader James Farmer and Jackie Curtis of the Lower East Side who we would now call a gender nonconforming performer. It’s hard enough being gender fluid now. Imagine how challenging it was in that time.
Another section draws on The Met collection to illustrate how Neel both intersected with and diverged from art historical practice.
This is big exhibition. Another section focuses on mothers before and after birth. This is an issue that we are dealing with now because racial and gender inequity has a big impact on mothers and children who represent our shared future.
There is a section of nudes, including an self-portrait she made when she was eighty. Why can’t an old woman be beautiful? Neel makes it so.
The last section presents her concept of “unfinishedness.” She used the idea aesthetically, but it is the ultimate truth of life.
If Art Can Heal, Then Alice Neel is a Healer
At this moment in time when we can’t touch each other, can’t be together, and are trying to purge our racist American traditions from inside our heads, this exhibition is almost like first aid or maybe even a vaccine. It feels good just to look at these paintings because we are all human after all.
If you go see this exhibition, we bet you’ll tell your friends about it and go see it again.
There is an excellent exhibition primer (metmuseum.org) online.
The exhibition is curated by Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey with Brinda Kumar. Congratulations. The best art makes you think and this exhibition makes you think a lot.
Neel was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania on January 28, 1900. She graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1925.
Upon graduation she married Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez. He was a niño bien (rich kid) so the couple moved to Havana, Cuba to live with his parents in the traditional Latin way. Pre-revolution Cuba was one of the most educated and advanced societies in Latin America.
There she was exposed to members of the Cuban Vanguardia Movement and has said that she had her first exhibition there.
The couple returned to New York in 1927. Her first child, Santillana died. This is probably why she connected so strongly with women around childbirth.
In the 1930s, Neel moved to “El Barrio” East Harlem. Even though it was a Cuban neighborhood, it was called “Spanish Harlem” then. Cuba was Spain until 1899. If you know the barrio, you see it in her work.
At this time Neel started painting female nudes, but in a psychological manner, not the sexualized fantasy of the male painters. That caused her some art critic trouble because she didn’t fit with the times. She was ahead of her time.
In the 1960s Neel began painting more portraits of women around childbirth. Her friends were having babies so she painted them. This caused more critical angst because once again, her work didn’t fit into the popular male gaze. But Neel did become something of a feminist icon. This was the beginning of the Women’s Movement. She even painted a “Time Magazine” cover.
By the 1970s, Neel was a widely acknowledged art star.
Neel’s famous self-portrait at eighty years young stirred the usual critical ruckus because she saw beauty where others (mostly men) couldn’t.
Alice Neel died in New York City on October 13, 1984. Her spirit lives on in her oils, watercolors and pencils. What a great spirit.