Alice Neel: People Come First
By Bobbie Leigh
“I reveal what shows and what doesn’t show,” declared Alice Neel (1900-84) in one of many YouTube clips. In fact, before you visit “Alice Neel: People Come First,” the artist’s first museum retrospective in more than 20 years, be sure to check out her Johnny Carson interviews on the “Tonight Show.” Neel is funny, irreverent, and positively winning. No wonder she was able to persuade even the most reluctant couples to pose for her in the nude. Neel was a fierce, radical artist but in the clips she resembles the favorite great-aunt who always remembered your birthday.
This pioneer artist’s portraits are remarkably intimate and often unflattering. Neel had a gift for conveying personalities, warts and all. Her pregnant women are not idolized. They have agonized expressions, swollen legs and enlarged veins. Neel’s totally unconventional self -portrait, painted roughly four years before she died, is a candid depiction of an aging woman’s body.
Living in Spanish Harlem for 25 years, Neel painted what she saw from her windows, everyday people and how they lived. She once said that she liked to paint people ruined by the rat race in New York City. For example, “Two Dominican Boys on 108th Street,” is honest, brutal, and forthright. The boys look tough and streetwise. As in most of the work in this show, their eyes are beamed directly at you.
As Neel gained recognition in the last decades of her life, she began painting celebrities — poets like Adrienne Rich and luminaries like historian and art critic Henry Geldzahler. One of her most riveting portraits is of the critic, teacher, and author Linda Nochlin and her daughter Daisy. Another unforgettable image is of Andy Warhol. More than any photograph could reveal, Neel captures a morose Warhol in pain as he recovers from being shot by Valerie Solanas. The pop star’s bare chest is criss-crossed with stitches while his face appears as emotionally wounded as his emaciated body. And yet, there’s a note of optimism in his apparently new shiny brown shoes, a sign of life after tragedy.
What you see in the roughly 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors in this show is the deeply affecting angst and worry in the faces of her subjects. From the famous to the fragile and forgotten, Neel’s portraits have an uncanny vividness.
“For me, people come first,” Neel declared in 1950. “I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”
For timed tickets, please go to metmuseum.org. On view from March 22-August 1 2021.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently, she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.