Installation view, Alice Neel: People Come First, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2022. Photo by Gary Sexton
March 12–July 10, 2022
“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are proud to present the first comprehensive museum survey of work by American artist Alice Neel (1900–1984) on the West Coast. Titled People Come First, this retrospective positions Neel as one of the 20th century’s most radical painters—one who championed social justice and held a long-standing commitment to humanist principles that inspired both her art and her life. Featuring a multitude of Neel’s paintings, drawings, and watercolors, as well as a rarely seen film unique to the de Young museum’s presentation, the de Young is the only West Coast venue for this revolutionary exhibition.
“Alice Neel dedicated her practice to portraying both people and moments in life that have often been erased or forgotten through time,” says Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Whether portraying the strength and struggles of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem, the labors of pregnancy and motherhood, or a generation of creatives devastated by the AIDS crisis, her works are unflinching in their honesty and radical in their interpretation.”
The exhibition’s presentation at the de Young will be divided into nine sections, drawing upon seven decades of Neel’s output. Working in a range of genres, the artist considered her “pictures of people” to be historical records of the time in which they were made. The exhibition also includes her accomplishments in other styles, specifically still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes.
This exhibition, a major traveling retrospective, began at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and subsequently traveled to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and now the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
March 22–August 1, 2021
Alice Neel: People Come First will be the first museum retrospective in New York of American artist Alice Neel (1900–1984) in twenty years. This ambitious survey will position Neel as one of the century’s most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art, as demonstrated in the approximately one hundred paintings, drawings, and watercolors that will appear in The Met’s survey.
Images of activists demonstrating against fascism and racism will appear alongside paintings of impoverished victims of the Great Depression, as well as portraits of Neel’s neighbors in Spanish Harlem, leaders from a wide range of political organizations, queer artists and performers, and members of New York’s global diaspora. The exhibition will also highlight Neel’s erotic watercolors and pastels from the 1930s, her depictions of mothers, and her paintings of nude figures (some of them visibly pregnant), all of whose candor and irreverence are without precedent in the history of Western art.
A longtime resident of the city, New York served as Neel’s most faithful subject. Indeed, the sum total of her work testifies to the drama of its streets, the quotidian beauty of its buildings, and most importantly, the diversity, resilience, and passion of its residents. “For me, people come first,” Neel declared in 1950. “I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”
Alice Neel The Art of Not Sitting Pretty
Phoebe Hoban’s definitive biography of the renowned American painter Alice Neel tells the unforgettable story of an artist whose life spanned the twentieth century, from women’s suffrage through the Depression, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and second-wave feminism. Throughout her life and work, Neel constantly challenged convention, ultimately gaining an enduring place in the canon.
Alice Neel’s stated goal was to “capture the zeitgeist.” Born into a proper Victorian family at the turn of the twentieth century, Neel reached voting age during suffrage. A quintessential bohemian, she was one of the first artists participating in the Easel Project of the Works Progress Administration, documenting the challenges of life during the Depression. An avowed humanist, Neel chose to paint the world around her, sticking to figurative work even during the peak of abstract expressionism. Neel never ceased pushing the envelope, creating a unique chronicle of her time.
Neel was fiercely democratic in selecting her subjects, who represent an extraordinarily diverse population—from such legendary figures as Joe Gould to her Spanish Harlem neighbors in the 1940s, the art critic Meyer Schapiro, Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, Andy Warhol, and major figures of the labor, civil rights, and feminist movements—producing an indelible portrait of twentieth-century America. By dictating her own terms, Neel was able to transcend such personal tragedy as the death of her infant daughter, Santillana, a nervous breakdown and suicide attempts, and the separation from her second child, Isabetta. After spending much of her career in relative obscurity, Neel finally received a major museum retrospective in 1974, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York.
In this first paperback edition of the authoritative biography of Neel, which serves also as a cultural history of twentieth-century New York, Hoban documents the tumultuous life of the artist in vivid detail, creating a portrait as incisive as Neel’s relentlessly honest paintings. With a new introduction by Hoban that explores Neel’s enduring relevance, this biography is essential to understanding and appreciating the life and work of one of America’s foremost artists.
Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life
Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life was a major museum survey of 72 works by Alice Neel. The exhibition travelled throughout Europe through January 2018.
The exhibition began with early portraits created in Havana and paintings made in the 1930s when the artist was living in New York's Greenwich Village. The later works included paintings Neel made in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she lived and worked from 1962 until 1984. The exhibition was curated by Jeremy Lewison, who has worked with the Estate of Alice Neel since 2003.
Neel persisted passionately with figurative painting throughout the post-war period, gaining recognition for her work from the 1960s onwards. The New York Review of Books observes how, in her later portraits, Neel was able to "unflinchingly depict the gamut of human vulnerabilities, emotions and attitudes." Her first retrospective was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1974 when Neel was 74. As Peter Schjeldahl writes in The New Yorker, "Outlasting insult and condescension, a woman among competitive men, and a figurative artist in times agog for abstraction, she triumphed."
Painter of Modern Life was first shown at the Ateneum Art Museum (part of the Finnish National Gallery) in Helsinki before traveling to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague in 2016, and the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in 2017. The exhibition opened at Deichtorhallen in Hamburg in October 2017. Painter of Modern Life was accompanied by a fully illustrated publication with texts by Jeremy Lewison and Susanna Pettersson.
Alice Neel, Uptown
Curated by Hilton Als, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, Alice Neel, Uptown was exhibited at David Zwirner in New York from February 23 – April 22, and was on view at Victoria Miro in London through July 29.
One of the foremost American figurative painters of the twentieth century, Neel is known for her portraits of family, friends, and neighbors as well as the writers, poets, and other cultural and political figures she encountered in a career spanning the 1920s to the 1980s. Alice Neel, Uptown presented works made during the five decades Neel spent in upper Manhattan, first in Spanish Harlem, where she moved in 1938, and later the Upper West Side just south of Harlem, where she lived from 1962 until 1984.
Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated publication with texts highlighting specific paintings. Writing in his characteristic narrative style, Als introduces the sitters and offers insights into Neel, her work, and process while adding his personal perspective. "Might one call Neel a kind of essayist of the canvas?" Als asks in the book's introduction. "…I was immediately consumed by the stories she worked so hard to tell: about loneliness, togetherness, and the drama of self-presentation, spurred by the drama of being…Alice Neel, Uptown, the first comprehensive look at Neel's portraits of people of color, is an attempt to honor not only what Neel saw, but the generosity behind her seeing."
Portrait of Alice Neel 1976 – 1982 is an intimate record of the artist by the Brooklyn-based filmmaker Michel Auder. The two became friends in 1975 when Neel (1900-1984) was living on the Upper West Side, just south of Harlem. As Auder recalled in an interview with Art in America, “I met her when she was 75 years old, just socially. She was sitting in a chair at a party, and going “Oh, you have such a long nose ... And that chin, like a Roman emperor!” She would do that to everyone.” A close relationship developed between Neel and her portraitist, who would visit her often. Drawing on extensive footage he shot of Neel over the course of their five year friendship—at home, while painting, on vacation, and in public—Auder's film is a revelatory and tender document of the artist's life.
Born in France in 1945, Auder bought his first portable video camera in 1969. Moving to New York City the same year, he became immersed in the downtown art scene, and was a pioneer of early video art influenced by Warhol's screen tests and French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard. The analogue vignettes with which Auder captures Neel are typical of some his works, which are characterized by a chronicling of daily life with low-quality cameras in a raw and experimental style. Following its initial release in 1986, a longer version of the film was produced in 1999 with funding from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Watch: A Portrait of a Painter
This New York Times video clip from 2007 features an excerpt from Michel Auder's film
Read: Alice Neel's Love of Harlem and the Neighbors She Painted There
The New York Times review of Alice Neel, Uptown by Jason Farago
Image courtesy the artist and Martos Gallery, New York