On view at David Zwirner’s 537 West 20th Street gallery in New York from February 26 through April 13, 2019, Alice Neel: Freedom will include a selection of paintings and significant works on paper by Alice Neel (1900–1984). With a range of works spanning her career, this exhibition focuses primarily on Neel's portrayal of the nude figure and the ways in which the artist resolutely challenged traditional perceptions of sexuality, motherhood, and beauty.
One of the foremost American figurative painters of the twentieth century, Neel was a humanist—she was fascinated by people. She loved to paint them in all their complexities—to penetrate and reveal their fears and anxieties, their defiance and survival. She also loved to paint the unadorned human figure. Her nudes explore the body with frankness while celebrating the individuality of each of her subjects, and they exemplify the freedom and courage with which she approached her work and her life. In their mastery of form, color, and implied social commentary, her nudes are as relevant today as when they were painted.
Organized by Ginny Neel of The Estate of Alice Neel, the exhibition will comprise significant loans from museum and private collections. It will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue that will include newly commissioned scholarship by Helen Molesworth, an introduction by Ginny Neel, and a contribution by Marlene Dumas.
Image: Installation view, Alice Neel: Freedom, David Zwirner, New York, 2019
"In her art Alice undermined female stereotypes and suppositions. She was honest about motherhood and maternity. She openly confronted the complexities of childbirth and abortion and suggested that wanting children should not be a defining quality of 'woman.' I admired her open sexuality, her enjoyment of sex, and her love of the male body. Just as men had painted women as sexual, enticing, alluring subjects that they had the right to lust after, so Alice painted men.
…I have brought together these specific paintings not only because they speak to honesty and equality but also because they were painted with honesty. Painting what she did in the way she did, Alice denied that one must have particular sensibilities to be a woman. She showed that women are not definable as a group, and that there is no male space that cannot be occupied by a woman. In this way, Alice released both men and women to simply be who they are. She saw her subjects not as representatives of a particular group but as representatives of themselves, distinct within but not apart from the larger complexities of human dynamics. These are paintings that celebrate individuals by an artist who expected to be treated as one. I hope this show and catalogue, while engaging our intellect and our feelings, remind us to continue to challenge all intolerance and all barriers to equality in the complex years ahead." —Ginny Neel, in her introduction to the catalogue accompanying Freedom
"I don’t do realism. I do a combination of realism and expressionism. It’s never just realism. I hate the New Realism. I hate equating a person and a room and a chair. Compositionally, a room, a chair, a table, and a person are all the same for me, but a person is human and psychological." —Alice Neel
"The sitters trusted Neel not only to not objectify them but also, perhaps even more importantly, to not judge them.… in the sitters’ brave acts of exposure, they made themselves available to an indescribable gaze, or a gaze I can only figure out how to describe via the negative: nonpornographic, nonobjective, nonjudgmental, nonmedical, nonmaternal, nonsexual, nonidealizing, nonprescriptive, nonmimetic, nonnormative. To look at a painting of a naked person by Neel is to understand that human skin is an organ, a living and breathing organ that covers the whole body: that it has differences of texture and sensation; that it grows and shrinks with its contents; that it can be robust and that it ages.… It is the boundary between us and everything else—this is what I think that charged blue line around her figures is all about. Alice Neel lets us see that our skin is simultaneously a container and a conductor of the electric life force that is humanness." —Helen Molesworth, "Looking with and looking at Alice Neel," in the catalogue accompanying Freedom
"[Pregnancy] isn’t what appeals to me, it’s just a fact of life. It’s a very important part of life and it was neglected. I feel as a subject it’s perfectly legitimate, and people out of false modesty, or being sissies, never showed it, but it’s a basic fact of life. Also, plastically, it’s very exciting." —Alice Neel
This video features an excerpt from a guided walkthrough of the exhibition Alice Neel: Freedom, led by curator and writer Helen Molesworth. In her talk, which took place at the gallery on March 13, 2019, Molesworth explored how Neel resolutely challenged traditional perceptions of sexuality, motherhood, and beauty through her portrayal of the nude figure, and how Neel’s work defied the historical conventions of figurative portraiture, the nude, and what it meant—or means—to "paint as a woman."
The exhibition catalogue for Freedom features a new essay by Molesworth. Recently named inaugural Curator-in-Residence of Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Molesworth was previously chief curator of MOCA, Los Angeles and the ICA Boston.
"Well Baby Clinic makes my attitude toward childbirth very dubious. I wondered how that woman could be so happy, with that little bit of hamburger she’s fixing the diaper for. That nice-looking one to the right of her is me. And you see the doctor. Look at that woman talking like mad, with that baby on her lap. And then you know another reaction I had? The purity of the nurses’ outfits, and the white walls of the hospital, so neat, and then sloppy humanity there, all ragged at the edges. And see that woman talking to the doctor, and he’s holding a few pills in his hand. This was done in the winter of 1928–29 from memory." —Alice Neel
"This picture shows her ability to thread the needle between the propriety of the hospital and the messiness of life, between the gimlet-eyed and the deeply felt. This high-wire balancing act would shape her intellectual, political, and aesthetic interests for years to come, years during which, it can be argued, these ideas and her painterly acumen developed more acutely." —Helen Molesworth, "Looking with and looking at Alice Neel"
“If … Neel’s pictures perform a diagnosis of the power relations of her society, then clearly in these early years of Neel’s adulthood, women bore the brunt of lovemaking’s repercussions. In Childbirth, we see a very pregnant woman, nude on a bed. The somber palette of grays and browns that rings her exhausted eyes, her mournful mouth a blur of paint, her contorted physical form, all indicate profound discomfort while simultaneously signaling troubles yet to come. Painted in the 1930s, decades before reliable, safe, and accessible birth control was available to women, the image does not offer motherhood as sentimental or saintly but rather as difficult, and potentially deadly.” —Helen Molesworth, “Looking with and looking at Alice Neel”
"I painted Symbols in 1932. A short time before, Roger Fry had written a book where he gave Cézanne’s apples the same importance in art as the religious madonnas. The doll is a symbol of woman. The doctor’s glove suggests childbirth. The white table looks like an operating table. And there’s religion in this, with the cross and palms. In my opinion all of this is humanity, really. This wretched little stuffed doll with an apple, and you see we’re still a stuffed doll . . . I hate to be powerless, so I live by myself and do all these pictures, and I get an illusion of power, which I know is only an illusion, but still I can have it."
"Joe wanted this painted, and I was still imaginative enough to give him a whole tier of penises. I thought that was so clever, hanging that one set from a stool. He was uncircumcised. This could be a propaganda picture against circumcision. Malcolm Cowley saw it one time, and he said: ‘The trouble with you, Alice, is you’re not romantic.’" —Alice Neel
"In this picture, the then 33-year-old painter takes an unmistakable stand as an observing, reacting woman and artist. The statement that she posited in time and in art is nothing short of incredible. A whimsical act: that eccentric, obviously slightly macho Gould wanted to be painted and he got what he wanted. That was her explanation but the actual recipient of this lovingly and elaborately painted congregation of male organs is art history, in compensation for centuries of unilateral fixation on female nudity." —Bice Curiger, "I hate the use of the word portrait," in Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life
"No matter what the rules are, when one is painting one creates one’s own world. Injustice has no sex and one of the primary motives of my work was to reveal the inequalities and pressures as shown in the psychology of the people I painted." —Alice Neel