Alice Neel: Selected Press

The subject of Alice Neel’s painting Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) (1972)—a founder of the New York Feminist Art Institute—presides over a worn purple chair like a self-possessed sovereign of bohemia. Peslikis’s right leg hangs over the armrest while her curling right arm shows off an unshaven armpit. Those brownish-black eyes confront us with a glare that is vulnerable yet not uninviting, as though she is too afraid to ask: “who the hell are you?” To her left, affixed on a blue wall under the vaulting industrial pipes of the Centre Pompidou is the double portrait Wellesley Girls (Kiki Djos ‘68 and Nancy Selvage ’67) (1967). In their preppy skirts and tights, painted under a harsh fluorescent light on a weekend trip to the city, they display the essence of middle-class naivety while social revolution rages outside.

Among others, they rub shoulders with Life magazine editor David Bourdon (purring like “the cat that’s got the cream”, according to Neel) and Gregory Battcock, the legendary secret-keeper of Manhattan’s queer gossip (whose stern expression resembles, oddly, “an Asturian miner”). The exhibition features 70 such works of Neel’s friends, her sons, their ex-girlfriends, loners, drop-outs, draftees, revolutionaries, expectant mothers, poets, museum curators, and strangers off the street. It is a veritable who’s who of the human carnival. It is a whole life in art.

Born on 28 January 1900, “four weeks younger than the century”, as she liked to say, Neel is perhaps the most astute and penetrating people-watcher of that tumultuous century of American history. She was painting right up until the moment of a particularly spectral photograph taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1984—included in the show—that depicts the artist just a week or so before her death.

Another work on display, by Jenny Holzer, is a wonderful fragment of biography: in 1955, when federal agents came to interrogate her over her Communist Party membership, Neel unsuccessfully tried to get them to sit for a painting.

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NEW YORK — Days after seeing "People Come First," a career-spanning Alice Neel survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an afterimage of her brisk vision of vibrant humanity still pulses behind my eyes. Even in memory, Neel's paintings never sit still. They squirm, shiver and jiggle. Particularly memorable is her astonishing sequence of tender yet frank, unidealized portraits of pregnant women, women in childbirth and women breastfeeding. Regarded cumulatively, they are one of the signal achievements of modern American art.

Neel died in 1984 at age 84. But “People Come First,” which was organized by Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey, is a perfect show for right now. Conspicuously, it answers a ringing, present-day call for institutional inclusiveness. Neel, as a portraitist, was ecumenical. She painted people of color, the poor, the elderly, children, immigrants, gay and transgender people, workers, artists and political activists. She painted them naked and clothed, ailing and healthy, in Greenwich Village in the 1930s and later in Spanish Harlem and, from 1962 on, in West Harlem. She paid attention to them in ways that felt — and still feel — connected to love. (“Love is a phenomenon of attention,” wrote Ortega Y Gasset, a formative influence on Neel in the 1920s.)

But this is only part of what makes “People Come First” timely. Through its driving focus on the singularity of all her subjects, Neel’s work pumps oxygen into a room choking on the exhaust fumes of identity politics. Her acid colors and wry, gorgeously wayward psychology cut through the ideological cholesterol spiking in our body politic to show life as it really is: frail, intense, hilarious, hard-won, ephemeral, contradictory, deeply odd and oh so beautiful.

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It is said that the future is female, and one can only hope. But it is important to remember that the past, through continuous excavation, is becoming more female all the time. The latest evidence is the gloriously relentless retrospective of Alice Neel (1900-1984), the radical realist painter of all things human, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Alice Neel: People Come First” is a momentous show of more than 100 paintings, drawings and watercolors from streetscapes, still lifes and interiors to the portraits of a veritable cross section of New Yorkers, occasionally nude, that are considered her greatest work.

The largest Neel retrospective yet seen in New York and the first in 20 years, it reigns over prime Met real estate — the Tisch Galleries, typically host to historic figures like Michelangelo, Delacroix and Courbet, and only now to a female artist. This array confirms Neel as equal if not superior to artists like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon and destined for icon status on the order of Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney.

“People Come First” opens with a gut-punch, a 1978 portrait that almost dares you to enter: “Margaret Evans Pregnant.” Evans, wife of the collage artist John Evans, is naked, her belly and breasts swollen by the imminent arrival of twins. She perches on what appears to be a gold velvet slipper chair, her pose at once regal and precarious, her staring eyes mimicking Neel’s scrutiny. Her profile and left shoulder register in a mirror close by, the reflection foretelling how childbirth will deflate her form. The painting announces several Neel themes: motherhood, female agency, individual personality and the body.

Neel liked, she said, the plasticity of pregnant women’s bodies, conjuring both her own distorted forms and her endless demonstrations of oil paint’s malleability. In 1980, at 80, four years before her death, she would unveil her own sagging nakedness in one of art history’s most quietly shocking and forthright self-portraits. But her sitters also guarded their privacy, as in the 1975 “Cindy Nemser and Chuck,” a nude double portrait of the well-known art critic and her husband. The pose is decorous, but the real cover stems from Nemser’s expression, which is alert with vigilant curiosity.

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ROOMS AREN’T SO important in an Alice Neel painting; her focus was on people. Her work, which attests to the cleareyed compassion Neel felt toward humans of all walks of life, reveals the deep interiority of her subjects through vivid, almost caricature-like renderings — wide-set eyes, dimpled chins, skin mottled in shades of green or blemished with blue-purple veins and exaggerated, spidery fingers. The settings in her artworks are often mere suggestions: the shade of a blue wall, the outline of a sofa — the room receding while the figure remains.

It can be disorienting, then, to recognize some of those settings in the artist’s final New York City residence — a 1,000-square-foot Upper West Side apartment, into which she moved in 1962 and which has remained largely unchanged since her death in 1984 at the age of 84. In the absence of a person, material details come into sharp relief: The artist’s blue paint-flecked smock hangs from her easel in the front room. Her palette, the globs of pigment now dried into nearly colorless husks, sits nearby on an aging page torn from The New York Times. Familiar furniture — such as the olive green sofa from “Linda Nochlin and Daisy” (1973) and the mustard yellow velvet chair from “Margaret Evans Pregnant” (1978) — is arranged in a circle. A photograph of her by Robert Mapplethorpe, thought to have been taken just days before she died, hangs beside the front door. The apartment is part museum, part time capsule, part home, part communion.

In each of Neel’s New York residences — from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem to the Upper West Side — the artist painted her subjects in her home, whether they were celebrities, such as Andy Warhol, or kids from the neighborhood, as in “Two Girls, Spanish Harlem” (1959). As such, her home was always her work space — a necessary collaborator.

The Upper West Side apartment is now occasionally inhabited by Neel’s youngest son, Hartley, 80, and his wife, Ginny, 77. (Neel had four children: Isabetta and Santillana, with the Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez Gómez, Neel’s only husband; Richard, with the Puerto Rican musician José Santiago Negrón; and Hartley, with the photographer and filmmaker Sam Brody.) Hartley and Ginny stay there when they’re in Manhattan (they reside in Vermont) and open the apartment for invited guests, although there are no plans to formally show it to the public. The front room, the sitting room, the kitchen and Hartley’s old bedroom are all much as Neel left them. “I remember coming in the door and she said, ‘Don’t take your coat off. I want to paint you like that,’” says Ginny. “This apartment was alive with Alice.”

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Sometimes artists start out on a high level and improve. The point was made by an exemplary show of Alice Neel’s early paintings from the 1930s and ’40s at Zwirner, an elaboration on her acclaimed retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And sometimes artists start better than they end up. Another singular show was “Maria Lassnig: The Paris Years, 1960-1968,” an valuable glimpse of the early career of the Austrian painter at Petzel (through Dec. 17). I’ve always found Lassnig’s mature figurative paintings arch and repetitive. Her climb to maturity was a delightful exploration of line and color infused with animation and humor. These early works are, to my mind, better than what came after.

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This year’s enormous Alice Neel show at the Met deserved its acclaim. But it included such a wealth of Neel’s mature portraits — humane figures often surrounded by blue lines — that it was hard not to see her earlier work as a transitional phase.

The canvases in “Alice Neel: The Early Years,” at David Zwirner, curated by Ginny Neel, the artist’s daughter-in-law, with Bellatrix Hubert, are a remedy. Spanning more than three decades (1927-1959), they are arranged, very loosely, in order of size and weight as well as chronology, as if to guide viewers toward a transcendent encounter with the artist’s grown sons. Captured, with Neel’s singular magic, sitting regally, “Richard” (1959) and “Hartley” (1957) are pulsing, slippery and alive, at once present and opaque.

Until you get to them, though, the show’s emphasis is on the strange and grimy landscapes, dreamscapes and caricatures of Neel’s 1930s and ’40s. Though her fabulous eye for emotional detail is already there — notice the impatient bohemian raising his eyebrows in “Village Party” (1933) — in many ways she’s still learning to paint. A receding street in “Under the Brooklyn Bridge” (1932), for example, looks more like a hill of clay, and many of the compositions are distinctly awkward. But that very awkwardness and idiosyncrasy, given its own space, is also a robust way of depicting an intense and mysterious world. Look at those red and yellow buildings under the Brooklyn Bridge, crammed edge to edge and crushed over the street: You’ll hear the clatter of trains overhead and feel the energy of a chaotic metropolis. Consider the obtrusive green fence behind her Village party: You’ll feel hemmed in and claustrophobic, too.

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This retrospective sent a collective shivering depth charge through viewers’ psyches and showed that Neel was the painter par excellence of modern life. So original, raw, harrowing, and loving is Neel’s work that, in her lifetime, critics couldn’t grasp what she was up to. She lived at the edges into her 70s. By the time she finally started to be recognized, this painter, who worked in her living room, had lost one child to disease and another to her estranged ex-husband, suffered a mental breakdown, and saw the art world pass her by for her male peers. In “People Come First,” she emerged as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and the ne plus ultra painter of pregnant women and motherhood — the colossal, savage tidal force that gives true meaning to “flesh of my flesh.” People lined up in spite of the pandemic to see work by this Balzac of the American human comedy.

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"I love you Harlem," the American painter Alice Neel wrote in her diary around the end of World War II, and really, she loved everything in it. Neel celebrated Harlem–specifically its ethnically mixed section known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio–for "your poverty and your loves." And what Neel eulogized in her diary, she immortalized in oils: street scenes, interiors and, above all, portraits of the men, women and children in a neighborhood far from the suburban Philadelphia of her youth, which the artist adopted as her own.

Little heralded in her lifetime, Neel (1900-1984) has won posthumous acclaim as one of America's most inventive and peculiar portraitists. Her later paintings, especially, made her sitters strange through thick outlining and unelaborated backgrounds. But behind Neel's experiments with form were New York lives–of writers and revolutionaries, lovers and petty criminals.

Two dozen of her portraits are on view in "Alice Neel, Uptown," an affectionate, rooted, and at times achingly nostalgic exhibition at David Zwirner gallery that concentrates on her relationships with fellow Harlemites, most of them black, Latin American or Asian. The show was organized by the writer Hilton Als, who also has written a series of wistful essays for the catalog.

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The American essayist, curator, and artist Hilton Als is perhaps most concerned with New York and remembering her children. He's spent much of his career at The New Yorker, writing anthropological dispatches from the city's theaters, outer boroughs, artist studios, streets, and subways–using the first person as a way to get at the heart and humanity of the city, the people he adored, how they arrived, what they wore, what kind of art they made, their victories, the effects of AIDS, and the unceremonious ways they went. This is all captured in an exhibition currently on view at David Zwirner gallery in New York, curated by Als, titled "Alice Neel, Uptown," which will travel later this spring to Victoria Miro gallery in London.

"I believe that one reason I began writing essays–a form without a form, until you make it–was this: you didn't have to borrow from an emotionally and visually upsetting past, as one did in fiction, apparently, to write your story," Als writes in the introduction to his forthcoming book, which is titled after the exhibition. "In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical 'I' but about the collective–all the voices that made your 'I.' When I first saw Alice Neel's pictures, I think I recognized a similar ethos of inclusion in her work."

"Alice Neel, Uptown" spans the nearly five decades that Neel, a painter, spent living uptown after the Great Depression through the 1970s. There she painted mostly non-famous, black and brown people: children; mothers and friends she came to know in El Barrio; and interracial couples. Benjamin (1976), a portrait of a young black boy dressed in a blue pullover against a blue backdrop, evokes the dignity and promise of her pictures. He sits looking directly ahead, waiting patiently to be represented. It's a fully human depiction, and it doesn't use the black or brown body to advance what Als calls an "ideological cause." Benjamin as rendered by Neel is simply a black child, being. How powerful is that? Like Als on the page today, Neel's paintings then captured all that she loved about the city, which is to say she imaged figures she knew had to be seen to be remembered. 

Shortly after the exhibition opened, we sat down with Als at David Zwirner to discuss his writing life, Alice Neel's pictures, and the city he holds dear.

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Critics often talk about the humanity of Alice Neel's paintings–or maybe they talk about how often critics talk about it. The word snugly adheres itself to the late artist's work like skin, as though humanism could not be found, one way or another, in every portrait of a human. In reality, some of Neel's most recognizable pictures are well known because they express a kind of loving cruelty–the humiliating yet awed portrayal of Warhol and his corseted stomach, or her nude self-portrait that scandalized so many upon its debut. But this bluntness–the occasional lazy eye, unfeasible proportions, or slightly morbid hues–lends her art its mysterious compassion as well as a sentimentality that shirks excessive or unearned emotion. Neel sought to depict life in all its forms, but more remarkably, her loyalty was to what–or whom–she believed we ought to see.

Most of the people that Alice Neel painted look directly at you. Neighbors, friends, intelligentsias, strangers; their eyes return a gaze as though they're familiar with whomever stands before them. A new exhibit of Neel's portraits from the 1950s through the 1980s at David Zwirner, curated by New Yorker critic Hilton Als, rejoices in the kind of merciful tension this eye contact occasions. In Uptown, which is, a little regrettably, located in Chelsea, Als brings together over thirty portraits Neel painted of people within her social circle in Harlem (if one takes a detour to Als's Instagram, they will stumble upon a similar project: a compulsive record of tender snapshots presenting the people encountered in his life). The sitters in this show belong to multiple classes and ethnicities, though all are people of color. The audacious roominess of the galleries, where paintings are plopped carefully onto large white walls, allows each portrait–or  person–to exist both alone and in relation to those nearby. The arrangement made my viewing experience rightfully slow, something to appreciate when considering Neel's ability to still: attitudes, a gesture, time.

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At a time when the very idea of difference is under attack, it's more important than ever to find voices that speak up for diversity. One such voice was the writer Jane Jacobs, who became known as urbanism's poet laureate. Less known is the proposition that figurative artist Alice Neel was and remains America's great painter of diversity–a fact clearly on view currently in a sparkling new show at David Zwirner gallery on 19th Street.

A 46-year resident of East Harlem and the Upper West Side from 1938 until her death in 1984, Neel spent several lean decades painting people who could not afford oil-on-canvas portraiture. These were her neighbors, their children, her friends and, just as often, cultural figures connected to Harlem or to the civil rights movement. Her subjects were also predominantly immigrant, black and Hispanic–the face of what sociologist Michael Harrington pegged, in his 1962 book, The Other America.

Now that the "other America" demographically resembles this country's more ethnically diverse population, Neel's portraits appear even more premonitory, representative and powerful.

Enter Alice Neel, Uptown, a selection of paintings and works on paper plus related ephemera (it includes photographs as well as books and pamphlets authored by some of the artist’s subjects) organized by The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als. An exhibition and an upcoming book (it is co-published by David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro) that brings together Neel's portraits of people of color for the first time, Als' choices and commentary celebrate both Neel's paintings and what the author calls "the generosity behind her seeing."

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"Museum-quality" exhibitions at larger galleries have become the norm, but the private sector can still make bolder and nimbler moves than most of our public institutions. A case in point: This miniretrospective of the great Alice Neel, curated by the writer Hilton Als, focuses almost entirely on the white painter's portraits of people of color. Painted between 1943 and 1978 in Neel's inimitable style–half social realist, half wonky Expressionist–the paintings and drawings of her uptown friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellow travelers form a remarkable montage of the artist's life in a vibrant, multicultural 20th-century New York. Everyone in her pictures, from unnamed local children with big eyes to prominent artists and intellectuals of the era, seem keenly, if awkwardly, alive. In a painting dated circa 1950, for example, the African-American writer Harold Cruse–forehead aglow, somber gray suit punctuated by a vivid blue scarf–thoughtfully touches his cheek with his long fingers.

In the early 1960s, Neel's paintings became brighter and more electrically hued, but she continued to delight in portraying the "other," including recent immigrants, stoned teenagers, pregnant women and queers. Neel's sitters, unlike those of, say, Diane Arbus, never seem freakish but rather appear companionable. Ron Kajiwara (1971) shows the graphic designer for Vogue, full-length and seated. His long black hair and coat, crossed legs with jeans tucked into knee-high boots and hand resting archly with knuckles on hip mark him as stylish and fey but never anything less than fully and equally present.

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I grew up in Brooklyn. For a while, on weekends, my father would take me and my little brother into "the city." My father loved to walk, and he loved foreign films and foreign food. This meant that we saw different areas of Manhattan all the time. We ate sauerkraut in Germantown on the Upper East Side, and bought brisket and bialys on the Lower East Side. Looking back now, I can see that my father showed us as much of the world as he could without going out into the actual world, or beyond Brooklyn and Manhattan. I think anything outside the parameters of what he knew–he sought the unfamiliar in the familiar–felt dangerous to him and so, presumably, to his male children, whom he could not love; he had an aversion to maleness. Daddy was the only son of West Indian immigrants, and it occurs to me now that all those places we visited with him, down in Chinatown and beyond, were some version of his immigrant experience–a world of strivers gathered around their native food, trading stories about the new world. I suppose my brother and I were, to some extent, representative of the new world. In any case, visiting those various neighborhoods in Manhattan prepared us for many things, including the feeling that different people were not unfamiliar to us; when you're a child, the world is oneself. Still, there were signs that this feeling of oneness would not remain forever. My mother raised me, my brother, and one of my older sisters on welfare. This was during the time when social workers could come to your house to see if you had anything you shouldn't have, like a husband, or a television. Something in my heart, though, concentrated on this feeling of oneness I wanted to have with someone, and with the world. Determination was, for a time, my very soul.

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In her beautiful, hard, and certain essay, "The Love of God and Affliction," the religious philosopher Simone Weil said: "The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction. It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, driven from their country, made destitute or reduced to slavery, imprisoned in camps or cells, since there are criminals to perform such actions." I am certain that Alice Neel, more than many an American artist, had a deep understanding of affliction. She did not use her work to escape it, but rather to plunge further into it–into the trauma of being despised, or forsaken. Indeed, if she had any credo as an artist, it was to show us ourselves, and herself, even when (or especially when) it was dangerous and hard to do so. Neel lived through two world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War; she saw dictators rise and fall, and empires clash with their colonies. She knew that the first mark of being political was looking: seeing what was done to others in this world, and how the afflicted became afflicted, or what nowadays we might call the disenfranchised. Neel experienced affliction herself, first hand. She lost two girls, her eldest children–one by kidnapping, essentially, and so saw the criminal at work in her personal life. What might have felled a person with lesser capabilities (and did harm Neel; in 1930, she suffered a nervous breakdown) went into the work.

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Alice Neel is best known for her portraits which, with their controlled painterly drama and psychological nuance, are complete and polished formal statements in a classical genre. Her drawings and watercolors, or at least the 62 in this absorbing show, are closer to diary entries. Ruminative, confiding, sometimes startlingly unguarded in emotion, they add up to a self-portrait sketched in private over some 50 years.

The earliest watercolors from the 1920s establish a period mood; they present the New York City that greeted a young artist when she arrived there at age 27 with a Cuban-born husband who would soon leave her and their infant, a daughter, who would soon die. There was little money; life was raw. In watercolors we see nude figures sponging down in a cramped tenement; glimpses of Dostoyevskian neighbors (in 1938 Ms. Neel drew a set of illustrations for "The Brothers Karamazov"); and a bleak Hudson River winter landscape, ash-gray in what was still a coal-heated, bad-air town.

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Alice Neel, who died in 1984, is remembered best as a portraitist—her paintings present friends, lovers, and other intimates with an astonishing, often forbidding guilelessness. Your average Neel portrait is penetrating, flip, scary, and more than a little funny, depending on how long you're willing to hold its subject's gaze. Neel's people all look to be plodding through the Stations of the Cross with a kind of decadent resignation—this is the world we live in, and oh well. "Alice loved a wretch," her daughter-in-law told the Guardian in 2004. "She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think."

When Neel wasn't painting, she was sketching. Alice Neel: Drawings and Watercolors, a new book with a corresponding exhibition, collects this interstitial work, some of it polished and some hauntingly restive. "There is an essential melancholy to Neel's work," Jeremy Lewison writes in the book's opening essay. "She presents a world of hardship, of tenement buildings and shared bathing facilities, of underprivileged and underclass immigrants, of humanity weighed down by the burdens of living in the harsh metropolitan environment, of human loss and tragedy."

All of which makes her a natural candidate to reckon with the Russian classics, those icons of gloom.

Well, someone must've thought so, once, and that someone was right. In the thirties, Neel made a series of illustrations for an edition of The Brothers Karamazov that apparently never came to fruition. It's not clear if the publishers rejected her work or if the whole project fell through, but in either case, damn. The eight illustrations demonstrate how attuned these two sensibilities are: it's the marriage of one kind of darkness to another. Compare them to, say, William Sharp's Brothers K illustrations and the difference, the change in register, is immediate—the black storm cloud of Neel's pen is well suited to Dostoyevsky's questions of God, reason, and doubt.

She brings out the madness and comedy, too. People forget how funny Dostoyevsky can be. Not Neel. She brings a manic bathos to these scenes that lends them both gravity and levity; in every wide, glassy pair of eyes, grave questions of moral certitude are undercut by the absurd. Some enterprising editorial assistant at Penguin Classics should see to it that a deluxe edition of Brothers K appears with these drawings posthaste.

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