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At the de Young, Alice Neel’s Paintings Assert the Dignity of All People

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People look at a wall of four colorful paintings of people
Installation view of 'Alice Neel: People Come First,' de Young, San Francisco, 2022. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Photo by Gary Sexton)

The amazing thing about art—especially art loosed from the constraints of particular movements and eras—is that it can be fresh and revelatory regardless of when it’s encountered. It’s a weird thing, a kind of time travel, to see decades or century-old paintings and feel them scintillate our eyeballs in 2022. Popular, much-reproduced work by so-called “masters” regularly does this in person, in part because the weight of art history tells us this work is beautiful and important.

But it’s another thing to encounter artwork that hasn’t had the benefit of decades or centuries of mythologizing, and to instead know in one’s own mind, heart and gut that this work is beautiful and important. Such is the case with the Alice Neel retrospective People Come First. First staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the show’s tour is making its third and final stop at the de Young, where it will introduce many to the painter’s six-decade-plus-career. I predict they’ll be unlikely to forget her.

Black-and-white image of woman sitting on floor surrounded by paintings
Sam Brody, ‘Alice Neel with paintings in her apartment,’ 1944. (Artworks © The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner)

The show opens with a 1944 photograph of Neel sitting cross-legged in her studio, surrounded by her “pictures of people” (she resisted the term “portraiture” as stuffy and conservative). This is an image of an artist wholly devoted to her craft: prolific; alone with the work, which rises in jumbled, haphazard stacks above. And yet this image also captures Neel surrounded by others—the friends, colleagues, family and neighbors she invited into her home studio and rendered in oil paint.

Throughout People Come First, the exhibition skillfully mingles both Neel’s epic biography and her subject matter in thematic rather than chronological displays. Born in 1900 to a white, middle-class family in Pennsylvania, Neel bucked the era’s expectations for her gender and social position. She joined the Communist Party; worked for the WPA’s Federal Art Project; took lovers; lived for 24 years in Spanish Harlem; and survived suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations, the death of a child, and the abandonment of a husband (who took their daughter back to Cuba). For many long decades, she also received little to no recognition from an art world obsessed with Abstract Expressionism.

In summary, Neel was a radical—both for the way she lived her life, and for what and how she chose to paint.

Painting of two young boys with their heads in their hands
Alice Neel, ‘The Black Boys,’ 1967; oil on canvas, 46 1/4 × 40 inches. (© The Estate of Alice Neel; Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner)

The exhibition’s title People Come First refers to a phrase Neel often repeated, asserting her belief in the dignity and importance of all human beings. As with any depiction of others, there is a power dynamic between the artist and her subject, a fact the exhibition wall text takes time to address, particularly in the 1972 painting of Neel’s Black housekeeper and child, Carmen and Judy. Neel’s privilege as a heterosexual white woman—even a poor one—definitely colored her interactions in leftist, civil rights and feminist communities, but it’s clear she traveled in remarkably diverse circles.

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And while the paintings in People Come First are undeniably Alice Neel paintings, the people depicted are also completely themselves; an equal sense of personhood is granted to each of her sitters. Some are household names (artist Robert Smithson), while others are known to us only because Neel painted them (a Black Vietnam War draftee named James Hunter).

To me, it’s the directness of Neel’s painting that helps convey that humanity. She rarely relied on preliminary drawings, instead putting down lines (often with blue paint) at the start of each session. A highlight of the de Young exhibition is the pairing of Ginny in a Blue Shirt (1969), made while visiting her son Hartley and his future wife in San Francisco, and a silent film shot by Hartley that shows its making. “When she hung the painting up on the wall, I had a very strange sensation of being there on the wall and in my body,” Ginny later said. “She caught something I recognized in myself.”

A painting of a woman in blue shirt and very unfinished painting of man in chair
L: Alice Neel, ‘Ginny in Blue Shirt,’ 1969; R: ‘Black Draftee (James Hunter),’ 1965.
(Both images © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner)

While at some stages in her life Neel decried abstract and non-objective art as being “against human beings,” she employed varying levels of abstraction in nearly all her work. She left sections of her paintings unfinished, flattened shapes into solid color and omitted details in order to zero in on certain expressions, objects and clearly relished fabric patterns. (A blue-and-white striped chair appears again and again.)

That thrilling combination of representation and abstraction is so contemporary, it’s possible to now take the radicalness of Neel’s work for granted. But one need only to look at Childbirth (1939), thought to be one of the first Western paintings to represent a woman giving birth, to understand how Neel’s desire to depict all aspects of life made her work so remarkable. She would continue to paint nude pregnant women, and women with their children, throughout her career.

Raising two sons largely by herself, painting at home, Neel did not sugarcoat her depictions of motherhood, presenting the labor alongside the love. She struggled with the dual roles of artist and mother in her own life; she only saw her daughter Isabetta twice in her childhood. I see Neel’s one and only self-portrait as a continuation of her work to honor the ever-changing physicality of women’s bodies. At 80, Neel gazes out, naked on her striped chair, with the same unidealized intensity present in her 1964 painting Pregnant Maria.

Painting of nude older woman holding paint brush in striped chair
Alice Neel, ‘Self-Portrait,’ 1980. (© The Estate of Alice Neel, 1980; Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Starting in the 1960s, Neel finally got the attention she’d long sought when the counterculture opened up new audiences for her work. Feminist curators and critics rallied around her, and the Whitney mounted a survey in 1974. When she died in 1984, Neel was widely recognized as the artist she had always been. Critic Jillian Steinhauer has written about this phenomenon of “rediscovering” older women artists, which tends to explain away their earlier lack of success by claiming they were somehow out of sync with artistic trends. “By definition, women, especially women of color, never fit into their times, because the times are not made for them,” Steinhauer writes.

It’s important that we not fall into that same trap in our thinking about Neel’s legacy. The project of being an “anarchic humanist,” as Neel described herself, requires that we not regard Neel as a martyr for her art, one who labored in obscurity until she finally got her due. To do so would erase the artist’s own humanity, which was as messy and imperfect as her beautiful and important depictions of ordinary life.

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‘Alice Neel: People Come First’ is on view at the de Young Museum March 12–July 10. Details here.

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