• Emma Laramie

Alice Neel: People Come First

On its face, portraiture does not seem radical; it is one of the oldest and most utilized genres in art history. Yet, in the hands of Alice Neel, portraiture becomes something else entirely. This is at the heart of Alice Neel: People Come First, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through August 1st. Positioning 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,” this retrospective illuminates not only the breadth of Neel’s oeuvre, but its revolutionary nature and how it subtly guides us towards a more empathetic and humane view of those around us.


Installation view of Alice Neel: People Come First. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen. Artwork © The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

Alice Neel: People Come First is Neel’s first retrospective in New York in over twenty years, allowing a new generation of New Yorkers to discover the woman who rendered and understood the city’s many diversities and characters. Featuring over 100 paintings, watercolors, and drawings, the exhibition is divided thematically, grouped in ways that focus on concepts of home life, activism, motherhood, and art history. What ties them all together is Neel’s continued fascination with subjects that would have been overlooked by others, such as the residents of Spanish Harlem, expectant mothers, and children.


Alice Neel, Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd, 1970, oil on canvas, 60 x 41 ⅞ inches. © The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.


The largest room, the third in the show’s chronology, features portraits of noteworthy artists, civil rights leaders, feminist activists, and other members of countercultural movements. The most memorable of these is Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (1970). Curtis was a drag queen and Warhol superstar, and her desire for fame and notoriety becomes palpable as she pushes herself forward into the viewer’s space, demanding our attention.


Alice Neel, The Black Boys, 1967, oil on canvas, 46 ¼ x 40 inches. © The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.


Yet it is the rooms that flank these portraits that strike the most poignant chord and underscores the show’s aim to posit Neel as both a social justice advocate and an unmatched portrait painter in a way that is subtler but in some moments more effective. One of the first rooms of the show contains a grouping of images of children who lived in her long-time neighborhood of Spanish Harlem. These children, such as The Black Boys (1967), are paid the same attention that Neel would give to an adult sitter. As such, they are rendered as fully fleshed out people, not merely naive youths. This painting in particular brilliantly captures a specific childhood boredom that comes from having to sit still for long periods of time, and Neel probes the depth of that feeling through their eyes, which beg the viewer for release, and their hands, which gently support the weight of their drooping heads.


The second of these two rooms showcases her interest in motherhood. The mother to four children herself, one of whom died very young from diphtheria (and which is referenced in her uniquely devastating painting, Futility of Effort, 1930), Neel had a deep fascination for how motherhood looked and felt. She painted numerous pregnant women, preferring to highlight women at the end of their pregnancies in addition to women with their young babies and children. These works are tender and intimate, but what makes them so powerful is how Neel refuses to shy away from the realities of both pregnancy and motherhood. Nipples are enlarged, veins are noticeable, children squirm in their seats, mothers look tired. While perhaps not as overtly political as a portrait of a civil rights leader, these images are no less revolutionary. It is easy to forget just how unusual it was for a woman to be ambitious and independent the way Neel was. With these paintings, Neel reclaims motherhood as something radical, as something political, as something worthy of being depicted on canvas to be hung in a museum for all to see. The first painting one sees upon entering the show is a noticeably pregnant woman, Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), reinforcing these images’ importance.


Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978, oil on canvas, 57 ¾ x 38 ½ inches, © The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

What is deserving of being preserved by paint, and the story of art history, is a theme that runs through Neel’s work and, therefore, in People Come First. Neel was acutely aware of her art historical predecessors. Viewers can see how she thinks about this lineage throughout, such as the hidden self-portrait in a painting of her son, Hartley on the Rocking Horse (1943), that recalls Velazquez’s famous Las Meninas or the funniest and most playful image of the show, an aerial perspective of a turkey in a sink (Thanksgiving, 1965) paired next to Chaim Soutine’s Still Life with Rayfish (circa 1924).


Alice Neel, Thanksgiving, 1965, oil on canvas, 30 x 34 inches. © The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

In many ways, Alice Neel is a very traditional artist. She did not work in abstraction or use nontraditional materials, or even really participate in the burgeoning artistic movements of the twentieth century. Instead, she continued to paint portraits long after they fell out of fashion, committed to a belief that people really do come first. Yet Neel turned the conventionality of portrait painting on its head, revolutionizing it as a genre and using it to center those who would have previously been deemed unworthy of that spotlight. The exhibition’s press release notes that Neel felt her art was a buffer against dehumanizing forces, and People Come First does indeed add some life and color to a currently uncertain world. Surrounded by so many faces after more than a year of isolation, the exhibition is like being reunited with old friends. It is the perfect show for the moment, and Neel continues to be ahead of her time.