Alice Neel went to the Met! Finally. Born in 1900, she painted all her life, often in the dark. In the 1970s, feminists discovered and praised it. She drew attention. At the moment, visitors are crowding a large retrospective of the paintings of this remarkable artist, feminist, champion of justice, communist, radical, mother.
And wouldn’t she love him? People who come to see HER people – portraits she took when very few did, in the macho era of Abstract Expressionism. Either way, none of these guys would have done something like this:
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC / The Alice Neel Estate
When Alice Neel was young she was beautiful. When she was 80, she was fearless. “It is devoid of pretensions,” says Kelly Baum, co-curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The subsidence, the subsidence. She shows it like that. But her face is wrinkle-free. And not haunted, it’s quite interesting. Not like the pictures she took of other people.
Nancy was then Neel’s daughter-in-law. Look at his eyes. Also the baby. “This baby is alive,” Baum said. “Also voluntary.” The new mother shows “the work of motherhood”, the work and the demands of parenthood. I see the despair in the eyes of mother and baby:
“What do I do with her?”
“What is she doing with me?”
Who painted a mother and child this way?
Alice Neel called her work “photos of people. She didn’t like the word “portrait”. Co-curator Randall Griffey says, “She thought she was making history,” telling the story of the 20th century through the people she paints. The title of this Met show is “Alice Neel: People First.” In an NPR interview in 1979, she explained why. You’ll get a real feel for her quirky chatter from this clip.
Susan Stamberg and Alice Neel
Life was tough for Alice Neel. The death of two of her children. Mental depression. Bad men (many men) come and go. And life was tough for most of the people she painted. Nobody smiles. No one has a lot of money. They are parents, they are pregnant, even the children are not relaxed.
“Neel treats her babysitters with as much respect and commitment as her adults,” says curator Kelly Baum. “They are not little one-dimensional people.” There is nothing sentimental about this vision of Carmen and Antonia Encarnacion – girls from the Neel neighborhood in Spanish Harlem. She sometimes paints the discomfort of childhood. They are curious but not happy. Not idealized. She treats them like humans.
“I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being,” Neel told the Communist Party’s Daily Worker newspaper. “To be human,” says curator Randall Griffey, “was to be grieved in one way or another, whether physical, emotional or family.” She believed life was tough. And she showed it.
Neel painted Georgie many times over the years. He is angelic sometimes. Here he is holding a knife. It’s rubber, a toy. But at one point, he had held her to his throat … playfully?
While painting people, Neel also painted New York City and its changes. She spent most of her 84 years there (she died in 1984). Over the years, on the web, its inhabitants reflect the changes of the city – and the country.
In 1965, as an American bombing campaign began to thunder in Vietnam, Alice Neel spotted this man on a New York street.
She stopped him, asked him if she could paint his picture. They agreed that there would be two sessions. While Mr Hunter posed, he told Neel that he had been drafted and was waiting to go to Vietnam. They worked for several hours. Neel did a lot that day. But I never saw Hunter again. No one knows why and the painting was never completed. Kelly Baum says she was “left unfinished by circumstances” and not by choice. Over time, Neel decided it was sold out and put it on a large display of his work at the Whitney Museum. Circumstances and the decision changed Neel’s style. She began to do unfinished, underpainted works. “Obviously, she learned something about the power of unfinished style.”
But what about James Hunter? He had to be called. Was he killed in Vietnam? Did he come home, leave town, forget the painting? Efforts to find him failed. His name is not engraved on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC
Curator Randall Griffey sees the mystery in the play itself. “You have the feeling of evaporating in the air.” Unfinished, James Hunter “is disappearing”.
History and painting are so powerful. And once seen, the portrait of Alice Neel fixes Hunter in the mind’s eye forever.
Art Where You’re At is an informal series featuring online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.