People Come First, Alice Neel’s retrospective at the DeYoung Museum, contains about 95 of her paintings, watercolors and graphite drawings, supported by some additional ephemera and a few additional works by other artists. The largest share of Neel’s works are portraits of various kinds, each asking and answering two simple questions: who are these people and why are we looking at representations of them? Answers can be deceptively simple because they invite numerous follow-ups that are more than a bit maddening. Reminding ourselves of Frank Stella’s famous truism pointing to the two problems facing the painter (what to paint and how to paint it), we can go on to add a third problem: what can be accomplished by reconsidering the complementary relationships between those two variables? Insofar as portraits are concerned, there has always been an internal conflict between the detailed description of a specific person and the symbolic representation of a generalized and oft-times idealized type of person, engendering a productive tension that was finessed at several zenith points in portraits painted by Albrecht Durer, Leonardo Di Vinci and Hans Holbein in the 15th and 16th centuries, and in others done by Rembrandt and Velasquez over a century later. This tension has been called The Portrait Problem by Max J. Friedlander,1 and it comes to bear on the entirety of Neel’s six-decade career.
Friedlander attributes the historical rise of portrait painting to “a heightening of self-consciousness”2 that emerged with the Renaissance, later codified when the French Academy upheld portrait painting as being second only to history painting in its influential hierarchy of genres. All of this has to do with the rise and presumable fall of
the kind of unfettered individual agency that is often associated with the linked emergence of Protestantism and Capitalism, prompting the question about the unique contribution of Neel’s work to this longer art historical legacy. The answer lies with how Neel’s work complicates the above-mentioned portrait problem by functioning as a projection of the painter’s own (often unrealized) sense of self onto her subjects. Throughout the exhibition (curated by Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey, initially at the Metropolitan Museum in New York), this kind of projective identification is born out in various guises, made evident by the fact that it is organized into thematic clusters of subject categories, obscuring the overarching chronology of Neel’s artistic development. For this reason, People Come First differs sharply from the retrospective of Neel’s work held at the Whitney Museum in 2000.
In 1921, Neel enrolled in the Pennsylvania School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art), an institution steeped in a post-Armory Show moment harking back to the Ashcan School theories of Robert Henri, who taught there from 1892 to 1895. Henri’s book, The Art Spirit, was published in 1923 when Neel was finishing her second year. In her superb biography of Neel’s life, Phoebe Hoban notes that the young artist took a dog-eared copy of Henri’s book with her on several travels,3 indicating it as an inspirational seedbed for the eccentric realism that was soon to come. The earliest painting in the exhibition is an untitled and undated work: a portrait of a model done in style comparable to the early work of Edward Hopper. Next to it is a portrait done with a similar painterly flourish, featuring Neel’s first husband, Carlos Enriquez, a painter from an aristocratic, pre-revolutionary Havana family.
After graduation, Neel traveled to Cuba with Enriquez, staying with his family for a year before returning to New York. One of the smallest and most unassuming works from this period can be read as the secret key to the entire exhibition. Titled Futility of Effort (1930), it is notable for its spare, Matisse-like composition and anemic grayscale palette. It reflects a news story about a child that accidentally strangled itself in a crib while its mother was ironing in another room. But for Neel, it also carried an additional and much more fraught meaning. In 1928, Neel’s first child, Santillanna, died of diphtheria contracted during an epidemic weeks before her first birthday. This devastated Neel, eventually leading to divorce from Enriquez and a severe and
prolonged depression signaled by the colorless melancholy of the painting. In May of 1931, Neel committed herself to a mental rehabilitation facility in Pennsylvania, staying there until September. Then, she moved to Greenwich Village, when that neighborhood was the bohemian epicenter of American social and artistic experimentation. Thanks to the Works Progress Administration, Neel began to receive a modest monthly stipend, a source of financial support that lasted until 1943. With additional support from various odd jobs, Neel was able to paint full-time.
There are some remarkable paintings from this period, many reflecting on her left-wing political enthusiasms formed during the early years of the New Deal. For example, Uneeda Biscuit Strike(1936) shows mounted police breaking up a worker’s protest. Its muddy palate reflects both the gloomy side of the Social Realist spectrum and a budget-conscious preference for inexpensive colors. Other works from this early period, such as Well Baby Clinic (1929), amalgamate the influences of Marsden Hartley and Reginald Marsh, with a little bit of early Georgia O’Keeffe included for good
measure. The painting from the 1930s that takes the bohemian cake is a full-frontal nude of Joe Gould, an eccentric denizen of the Village who posed for Neel in 1933. Sporting a Mephistophelian sneer and more than a half dozen penises, Gould appears as both a comic and a sinister character. Another full-frontal nude, originally painted in 1934 and re-painted in 1944, takes Neel’s second daughter Isabetta as its subject, showing its prepubescent sitter standing defiant, with arms akimbo. Isabetta was a replacement child born soon after Santillana died. She was later spirited off to Cuba (by Enriquez) to live with his family after his marriage to Neel finally dissolved. From that point, Isabetta was estranged from her mother, representing yet another loss.
The paintings of Joe Gould and Isabetta are in a section of the exhibition devoted to Neel’s nude figures and later paintings that are also of interest. One of these is a 1971 full frontal figure representation of critic/curator John Perrault, executed in a style that has been called a male odalisque. It recalls John Berger’s distinction between naked and nude, wherein nudity equates to showing one’s body in a sexual way versus nakedness as a display of one’s true self without regard for such considerations. Neel treats Perrault’s frail body at the nude end of Berger’s spectrum. Contrast that with a full-figure self-portrait from 1980 showing the octogenarian artist displaying her own aging body with forthright candor, far more naked than nude. Several of the other
nudes from the later period, such as Pregnant Woman (1971), Margaret Evans (1978), Pregnant (1978) and Pregnant Maria (1964), show nude women in advanced stages of pregnancy, also playing Berger’s dichotomic categories against each other to great effect. More to the point, Neel treats her nude subjects as real people who happen to be undressed on hot summer afternoons as opposed to the ambulatory studio props favored by earlier modernist figure painters.
Neel returned to the theme of mother and child through all phases of her career, undoubtedly reflecting on and compensating for her own experience of losing a young child. People Come First includes several examples of paintings dealing with this subject. The earliest from 1926, titled Mother and Child: Havana, was executed two years before the death of Santillanna. Later paintings, such as Mother and Child (1962) and Nancy and Olivia (1967), follow suit, asking the viewer to compare the different ways that Neel painted the mother-child dyad. In these, facial expressions subtly suggest anxieties, disruptions, and excesses of self-consciousness, inflecting the harmony between the two figures. The children’s faces seem uncannily older than their visible years. Alas, Neel’s most famous treatment of the subject, Linda Nochlin and Daisy (1973), is not included in the exhibition, although it appears in the catalog. It captures the famous art historian right after she published the ground-breaking essay Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists? addressing a topic that was a concern for Neel and every other female artist of her generation.
Neel decamped from the Village in 1938, moving uptown to Spanish Harlem, a predominately Puerto Rican neighborhood also called El Barrio. It is interesting to unpack the possible reasons why she did so. She claimed she was seeking “more truth,” implying that it was in short supply downtown. By 1938, Social Realism was already on the decline, with various forms of avant-garde Modernism starting to gain ascendency because of an early wave of artists arriving from Europe on the verge of war. In 1939, the Hitler-Stalin pact would dash the utopian hopes of the old left, co-incidental as it was with the outbreak of World War II. Thus, Neel’s move to El Barrio can be understood as a preemptive retreat from the bombast of war propaganda and the Abstract Expressionist machismo that would follow, both of which she disdained. The artworld that loved Abstract Expressionism returned the favor, ignoring Neel and her work for almost two decades.
Neel’s El Barrio paintings reveal the earliest manifestations of what would eventually be recognized as her mature style, anticipating the current vogue for “relatable” figuration of the type produced by artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. The Spanish Family (1943) bears this out, providing a sympathetic treatment of the single mother with her three children, also representing one of the few instances where Neel positions the viewer directly across from the central figure, as is also the case in Last Sickness from 1953 and Alice Childress from 1959. Her subjects are often positioned below the viewer’s sightline as if they were children seeking attention or nourishment. This point is born out in Puerto Rican Boys on 108th Street (1955), The
Black Boys (1967), Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) and Richard and Hartley (1950), the latter painting featuring Neel’s two young sons born out of wedlock from separate fathers, looking as if they are awaiting punishment. In these and other works from the El Barrio period, Neel’s treatment of faces begins to register more complex emotions, oftentimes shifting from angry defiance to anxious dejection by way of a few deft brushstrokes working in the interstitial space between caricature and descriptive modeling.
I have always wondered if Neel might have been influenced by some of the painters associated with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1940s, especially Palmer Hayden and Jacob Lawrence, who had notable exhibitions near El Barrio during that decade. Indeed, the stylistic, technical and iconographic similarities between their work and the paintings that Neel produced during that time tempt this consideration, but nothing in the biographical record supports any clear answer.
In 1958, Neel undertook a prolonged course of psychotherapy, which heralded another shift in her work. As the story goes, Neel’s psychotherapist encouraged her to contact Poet/Critic/Curator Frank O’Hara to paint his portrait. In 1959, O’Hara agreed and was happy with the result (which, unfortunately, is not included in this exhibition or the catalog). The encounter may have had something to do with O’Hara’s formulation of a poetic doctrine he called Personism,4 which eschewed abstract and formal qualities in favor of real people portrayed in tangible circumstances. That doctrine could be modified to examine Neel’s artistic ambitions, highlighting the absence of high pretension in her work, countering the cresting tide of inflated presumption that suffused the New York artworld of the 1940s and 1950s. On this score, it is worth remembering that Neel tacked in that direction long before Andy Warhol theatricalized a lack of pretention into a new kind of pretense.
In any event, O’Hara introduced Neel to other luminaries in the New York artworld whose portraits she often painted. Soon after that, she became something akin to the court portraitist for the post-Abstract Expressionist demimonde, allowing for her slow return to its limelight, along with financial success, measured by a string of solo exhibitions at the Green Gallery. At that juncture, timing was on Neel’s side, as Abstract Expressionism was running out of gas while new and very different stylistics were coming to the fore in a quickly changing artworld. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had their influential exhibitions at the Leo Castelli Gallery that same year, 1958. Soon after that, Peter Selz presented his New Images of Man at MoMA, making New York safe for figurative expressionism. Another of Neel’s most famous paintings is a 1970 portrait of Andy Warhol, showing him looking away from the viewer’s gaze, shirtless, revealing the post-surgical scars that resulted from his being shot by Valerie Solanas the prior year. That, too, goes missing from the exhibition but is included in the catalog.
One intriguing portrait included in the exhibition and the catalog is the 1962 painting of a young Robert Smithson, captured years before artworld fame knocked on his door. It is one of very few Neel compositions showing an upward-looking figure. He is depicted from a low vantage gazing toward a distant horizon far beyond the picture space, another rarity in Neel’s oeuvre. Here we see Smithson’s face in exaggerated profile, revealing a lantern jaw and acne scars that resemble third-degree burns. Even
more remarkable than the depiction of Smithson’s chiseled face is the way that Neel painted his hands, revealing them as contorted clutches of misshapen knuckles and serpentine digits. Neel was always able to paint hands in ways that accentuated and modified her portraits’ psychological and emotional power. The Max Beckmanesque Max White (1935), Elenka (1936), claimed by some to be a portrait of Surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren, and Phillip Bonosky (1948), are examples. The jovial-looking Fuller Brush Man (1967) also features enlarged, over-articulated hands, but in this case, they are the static predellas of a figure that seems content to sit down and rest for a few hours. He also displays some discomfort about being interrogated by Neel’s prying eyes, struggling to not break from his phony Willy Loman-esque optimism. In other paintings, Neel reverses this emphasis by radically understating the hands of her sitters, making them look like palsied sausages, as can be seen in the distraught-looking Randal in Extremis (1960) or the uncomfortable and impatient looking Henry Geldzahler (1967).
By 1962, Neel was hitting her stride. She moved from Spanish Harlem to the West Side just south of Morningside Heights to a larger space that could facilitate larger paintings suffused with brighter light and more expansive pictorial space, and more expensive colors. In June of 1967 and again in 1969, Neel visited San Francisco. The biographical record tells us that she was favorably impressed with the city, finding the Summer-of-Love counterculture to be a convivial alternative to pressure-cooker New York, perhaps rekindling her memories of Greenwich Village. The exhibition includes film footage taken by her younger son Hartley (in San Francisco), showing Neel painting a portrait of his soon-to-be wife, Ginny. Two portraits of Ginny are included in People Come First. Both depict their anxious subject looking suspicious of whatever judgment might be directed toward her, no doubt mirroring the same attitude that Neel projected onto her for stealing her son’s affections. Much can be said about the anxieties underlying the mother/daughter-in-law dyad, and these paintings tell it all through layers of subtle innuendo.
For example, in Ginny with a Striped Shirt (1969), the micro-expressions of tightly held emotions are captured with forthright clarity. Also, it is interesting to compare this painting with the one mentioned above that Neel painted of Isabetta over a quarter century earlier. Both figures confront the viewer with arms akimbo; the latter picture could be read as the artist imagining what an adult version of Isabetta might look like—the resemblance is unmistakable. But Ginny looks tired and put upon, her skimpy red miniskirt pulled up high to subtly intimate the forthright nudity of the earlier figure.
Another section of works from the late 1960s and early/middle 1970s focuses on improbable characters Neel seems to want to normalize and memorialize. These are some of the best paintings in the exhibition. Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (1975) is a particularly stunning example, showing a transgender couple affectionately posed close together while looking past the viewer and each other. In this, Neel outdoes herself in terms of flamboyant color and energetic paint handling. Still, its most interesting attributes are the faces of the two figures, which brilliantly capture the exaggerated tension between dejected authenticity and compensatory social masquerade. The imaginative viewer could easily read this work as an alternative universe version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic (minus the pitchfork). In Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews (1972), we see the well-known African American artist pictured in a state of deep, reflective thought, sitting in the same striped chair that so many of Neel’s other subjects
occupied. Those in Mary Ellen’s shirt mirror the bold, graphic stripes of the chair, but her bright red hat electrifies the composition. In David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock (1970), the red socks worn by the left-hand figure provide similar compositional spice, as does the bright yellow underwear in which he is clad. These and similar works demonstrate that Neel has a penchant for taking in stray people, particularly those partnered in gay relationships. From our contemporary vantage, it might seem like she was revisiting a Christopher Street version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, but we should remember that the Stonewall riots took place in Greenwich Village (in June of 1969) as a response to draconian New York State and Federal Laws that criminalized homosexuality. Ever the young socialist at heart, Neel painted the works in this group as a way of taking the side of the oppressed, bringing them into a wider circle of social and political empathy. They also prompt us to ask if Neel was influenced by that era’s other great collector of eccentric people, Diane Arbus, who was already well-known long before her posthumous 1973 retrospective at MoMA.
Most of the paintings in the exhibition keep faith with the declared premise of people coming first. And while the show also includes many still lifes and cityscapes, they come off as genre-bound exercises that fail to sustain the art-historical reputation earned by the portraits. That said, a 1980 still life titled Light, showing a bouquet of brightly colored flowers on a table, merits consideration. The room is suffused in a lush Matissian light, making it the exhibition’s single, most hopeful work. Are the flowers a 50th-anniversary tribute to Santillana? Maybe. But one thing is certain: This painting confirms the painful lesson that many of us have learned during the past two years, that while people come first, the best of them depart far too soon.
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Alice Neel: “People Come First” @ de Young Museum through July 10, 2022.
- Max J. Friedlander, Landscape, Portrait and Still-Life: Their Origin and Development(Translated by R.E.C Hull, New York: Schocken Books, 1963).
- p. 232.
- Phoebe Hoban, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (New York: David Zwirner Books). All biographical references are taken from this source unless otherwise noted.
- See Frank O’ Hara, Personism (1959).
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.
Victoria Dalkey says
A model of clarity, this intelligent, incisive, scholarly review of an important show by art critic Mark Van Proyen should be read by any serious student of mid and late 20th century figurative art. Neel’s raw, psychologically compelling portraits of mostly unknown people as well as family members and artists who were her contemporaries. The exhibition also includes works that relate to her progressive political views and demonstrate her emotionally expressive approach to rendering her subjects with honesty and compassion.
Nancy Willis says
Excellent essay Mark. I think Alice Neel is a complicated figure and you bring that complexity into view in her work. I am sharing this with my painting students. Thank you !
Daniel Detorie says
Wonderful review. My only disappointment with the show at the deYoung is the curator’s choice to display Alice Neel by subject…rather than chronologically. Otherwise, a wonderful summer gift to San Francisco.
Lin Fischer says
Brilliant and engaging review. Thank you, Mark!
Bill Nichols says
This is an excellent, very well contextualized accounting of Neel’s career. I am simply struck by what may be one absence: the Communist Party and her likely affiliation with it. The de Young show attests to her leftist leanings and her contributions to leftist causes and magazines, most of which the CPUSA had a large hand in guiding. But nothing indicates if she ever joined the Party or not. The CPUSA was the progressive party of the time, before the smear campaigns and McCarthyism began. But the stain against it, aided and abetted by the abject failure of the USSR to live up to the fundamental principles of its founding revolution, remain with us. To call Neel a Communist artist in any sense opens a Pandora’s box we would all prefer to avoid. I wonder about her political affiliations and also about the long hand of right-wing distortions of what communism once meant in a progressive, American context.