Alice Neel: People Come First
On view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from March 22–August 1, 2021, Alice Neel: People Come First is the first museum retrospective in New York of American artist Alice Neel (1900–1984) in twenty years. This ambitious survey positions 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 appear in The Met’s survey.
Images of activists demonstrating against fascism and racism 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 also highlights 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.’’
Newly published in paperback this year with a new introduction by the author, Phoebe Hoban’s definitive biography of 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.
Cover image: Alice Neel, Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian, 1978 (detail)