October 16, 2021

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Radical Realist Alice Neel Helped Redefine Portraiture in Postwar New York

During the 1940s and ’50s, from her modest studio in New York, Alice Neel saw the heyday of Abstract Expressionism come and go. Then, during the ’60s, Pop art passed by, and soon, Minimalism did, too. All the while, Neel continued working, producing figurative paintings decidedly out of step with what was popular at the time in the art world.

The artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism were interested in defamiliarizing the human form, reducing and reconstructing individuals to color and line. Neel, a painter apart from her time, was curious about people just as they were. She worked in a mode known as social realism, confronting humanity forthright with no irony to spare the viewer. It’s a style best glimpsed in a self-portrait made in 1980, four years before her death. Neel painted herself seated in an armchair and wearing only her glasses. One of her hands holds a paintbrush, and in the other, she clutches a rag. She peers out unassumingly at the viewer with a gaze that almost suggests a hint of judgement, as if she’s trying to say: “Yes, and?”

An early feminist and a dedicated Communist, her social realism was meant to communicate socioeconomic inequities. She painted her dying mother, addicts, strangers, the civil rights leader James Farmer, and denizens of the psych ward where she recovered from a nervous breakdown, among others. During their painting sessions Neel talked and talked, drawing out the life stories of her sitters. (In spite of this, one of her more famous remarks disparaged chats: “Art is not as stupid as human conversation.”) Many of these portraits are now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in her first retrospective in the city in 20 years.

The works included in that show attest to the fact that Neel was a visual archivist of New York City, in particular Spanish Harlem, where she lived for 20-odd years. Strangers and lovers were depicted with the same care as luminaries of New York’s postwar ’70s creative landscape. Andy Warhol appears in one famed Neel work stripped to the waist and showing off the scars Valerie Solanas’s assassination attempt left on his sunken chest. During her lifetime, New York Times critic John Russell wrote: ”To be painted by Miss Neel is not simply the equivalent of a body search. It is the equivalent of a body-and-soul search.”

Despite the fact that she is now seen to have revolutionized portraiture, Neel struggled to earn institutional acknowledgement for her early work. “I may have done a few abstractions in my time and I could have done more except that I have this obsession with life,” she once told an interviewer. She then suggested her critics try holding her paintings upside down.

People attend the press preview of artist Alice Neel "People Come First" gallery exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY, On March 15, 2021. This marks the museum's first retrospective of American artist Alice Need (1900 - 1984). (Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

An image of artist Alice Neel at “People Come First” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A Restless Beginning

Alice Hartley Neel was born in 1900, in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, a quaint, sleepy town. ( “I came out of that little town the most depressed virgin who ever lived,” she said in a 2008 documentary directed by her grandson). She was a sensitive, anxious child. Her paintings and drawings became a way to negotiate into life, even as life resisted her ambitions. According to Phoebe Hoban’s biography 2010 biography Alice Neel: The Art of Sitting Pretty, when Neel told her grandmother that she wanted to be an artist, the woman replied, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, Alice. You’re only a girl.”

Neel, thankfully, was resilient. In 1921 she enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design (later renamed the Moore College of Art), where she studied the work of the American modernism Robert Henri, whose Ashcan School of art-making maintained that painting should be “as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter.”

Neel was frustrated by her upper-class classmates. “There were all these rich girls who went there as a finishing school,” she said. “I realized that wasn’t what I was there for…. For three years I worked so hard because I had a conscience about going to art school.” She was disquieted by the “old grey-haired women” who scrubbed the academy’s floors while she studied Greek statues.

In this Sept. 18, 2019, photo, two women look at a painting by American artist Alice Neel at the exhibit "Women Take the Floor" at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In the wake of a student group incident last spring when the world-class museum was accused of racism, the MFA has scrambled to make amends. In a nod to the need for greater gender equity, it has given over an entire wing to female artists in "Women Take the Floor," an exhibition timed to coincide with next year's centennial of U.S. women winning the right to vote. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Alice Neel, Linda Nochlin and Daisy (1973).

A Bohemian in New York

Neel attended summer art school in 1924, where she met the painter Carlos Enríquez, the son of a prominent Cuban family. The two married the following year and she followed him back to Havana. There he gave birth her first daughter, Santillana, but she was a restless housewife, and they soon moved back to New York. Tragedy struck in 1927, when their baby died of diphtheria—the subject of the haunting Futility of Effort (1930), in which a ragdoll-like child appears to fuse with a bed set inside a grey void.

“I was frantic … I was already in a trap. All I could do was get pregnant again,” Neel later told biographer Patricia Hills. She soon became pregnant with her second daughter, Isabetta. But Enríquez eventually left Neel to return to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. She would see her daughter only a few times throughout her life. As Neel recalled it, “it was just the end of everything.” She had a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide twice, once by eating glass, and entered a sanatorium.

It was at that time that she painted Well Baby Clinic (1928–29), a ghoulish scene of a local maternity ward. Screaming babies flail on beds unattended, and frenzied mothers implore a doctor for pills. Neel is there, painted with an expression of exhaustion or ambivalence. A young girl, bald and clad in ghostly white, stares out at the viewer.

Neel returned to themes of motherhood, loss, and female interiority again throughout her career. Works such as the powerful 1972 painting Carmen and Judy are in some ways the opposite of Well Baby Clinic: they are warm and upbeat. In that painting, Carmen, Neel’s Latina neighbor in Spanish Harlem, breastfeeds a baby girl, who stares up with trust. Carmen offers a small knowing smile. A stroke of electric blue accentuates her form.

While art’s in-crowd hung out in the East Village, Neel worked in relative obscurity, creating unadorned portraits of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem. At the onset of the 19th century, her neighborhood had been predominantly Polish. More than a century later, the Dominican and Puerto Rican communities had come to dominate the district. Neel’s art was in part a reflection of those demographical shifts, but her portraits are important for another reason, too. Her Black and Latinx sitters were captured with grace and a depth of interiority rarely afforded to them at the time.

Neel never remarried, instead taking a string of lovers that led to the birth of three sons from different fathers, and she never sold much art, either. (When she died in 1984, 300 paintings were discovered in her apartment.) A Times critic later dubbed her the ”quintessential Bohemian,” a moniker that she seemed to relish. ”My life was pure women’s lib in a way,” she told Hoban, her biographer. ”I had a very hard life, and I paid the price for it, but I did as I wanted.” It seems only fitting, then, that leftist feminists helped rescue her from obscurity.

In Retrospect

Radicalized by the poverty of pre-revolutionary Havana, Neel was an outspoken advocate for the Communist cause. She was an active fundraiser for the CPUSA and an admirer of Ella Reeve Bloor, known as Mother Bloor, a leader of the American branch of the Communist Party in the ’20s and ’30s. (Later on, Neel memorialized her with the 1951 painting Death of Mother Bloor.) Coupled with her sensitive portrayals of working-class women, Neel became a cult figure for the New Left feminist movement, whose New York nexus was the Village. Feminist activists and critics championed her work—and eventually led to renewed interest in Neel.

Out of this fervor for her came her first retrospective, at the Whitney Museum in 1974. It included 58 paintings, dating from the years 1933 to 1973. The exhibition was up for only 38 days, and not everyone was pleased. The New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote that her style lacked “basic competence” and dismissed her as “not the kind of artist whose work can sustain such scrutiny.”

He seemed offended, even repulsed, but how she viewed her sitters. Their bodies were often saggy and wrinkled, and their faces were graced by surprise or contentment or despair. Women, especially, were depicted as sexual but not sexualized, sensitive but not fragile. She was onto something vital, and was willing to wait out the world.

“You know what it takes to be an artist?” Neel asked Hoban. “Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil. To never give up.”