One of the oft-repeated stories about Alice Neel is that she didn’t like the word “portrait”.
The American painter found the term elitist and instead referred to her works as “pictures of people,” a more democratic description that reflected the diverse racial, social, and economic backgrounds of the people she painted. As an overarching label for Neel’s work, the term is apt; Even in her cityscapes and still lifes, people are always Neel’s true subject.
Alice Neel: People Come First, which opens at the de Young Museum on Saturday, March 12, is an exhibition full of humanity. It’s not just the humanity of her subjects—which include neighbors, fellow artists, radical activists, mothers, children, friends, and strangers—it’s how human and intimate she depicts them in her gently expressionist, figurative style. There is a vulnerability in many of the poses and faces of Neel’s subjects. As you study the works, you can almost sense the desire in Neel’s eyes to tell their stories.
“She had this deeply sensitive and humanistic streak in her work,” says Lauren Palmor, associate curator of American art at de Young. “But she was also practically a working mother. She couldn’t afford models, so she painted the world around her.”
The humans around Neel were more than enough to draw from, with their ability to capture a person’s essence. It is evident in the Christ-like pose revealing the suffering of the tuberculosis patient in 1940’s “TB Harlem”; the mother’s exhaustion in 1943’s The Spanish Family; or Robbie Tillotson, sitting coolly, cross-legged and showing a peace sign, in a 1973 work.
Born into a middle-class family in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, Neel (1900–1984) studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design). She traveled to Cuba in 1924, where she lived. She met her husband, the painter Carlos Enríquez, and was initially exposed to the radical politics that would shape her social environment and her art for the rest of her life.
Later that decade, the couple moved to New York City. There, after the death of her daughter Santillana, just a month before her first birthday in 1927, Neel’s work took on dimensions of fear and fear of loss. This was especially true of her later work, in which she painted unabashed images of motherhood. (Neel had three other children: daughter Isabetta with Enriquez; and sons Richard Santiago with musician José Santiago Negron and Hartley Neel, whose father is unknown – all whom she later painted.)
During the Great Depression, Neel turned her gaze to her community in Spanish Harlem, which included the working poor, fellow artists like poet Kenneth Fearing, and social activists like Mother Bloor and Pat Whalen. Her protest scenes like 1936’s “Nazis Murder Jews” and 1950’s “Save Willie McGee” show the vibrant activism in Neel’s world.
She also began painting female nudes in the 1930s. but like her works depicting motherhood, they lacked the typical idealization. After World War II, Neel expanded her practice to painting uncompromising pregnant nudes. Her later works include a 1980 nude self-portrait at the age of 80.
The exhibition, which originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, begins with a look at Neel’s earliest work from the 1920s and 1930s and places them directly in the context of their time and place with examples of their New York cityscapes.
In her protest images and works like Fish Market (1947) and Central Park (1959), humanity begins to emerge from the city. At some point one is confronted with the human presence of her subjects, as in 1967’s The Black Boys, with her eyes upturned; the apparent uneasiness of curator Henry Geldzahlener, who leans one hand on the back of a chair in a 1967 work; and the determination of the same year’s “Marxist Girl,” in which she also steels herself but defiantly throws a leg over the back of a chair.
Two views of playwright and Andy Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis — 1970’s “Jackie Curtis and Ritta Red,” which shows Curtis in women’s clothing, and 1972’s “Jackie Curtis as a Boy” — also show how connected Neel is to the new wave of outsider creatives through and through life remained. Other sections feature collections of Neel’s work on mothers, pregnancy and children, as well as explorations of male and female nudes.
In addition to the sense of connection with her subjects, “People Come First” is her most apt demonstration of how far ahead of contemporary discussions of who should be represented in portraiture. When seen en masse, her works reflect the urban, racial, and cultural mix in which she lived, in a way that feels very relevant in 2022.
During Neel’s lifetime, much of the art world was turning to abstraction as a mode for change. There is something quietly radical about Neel’s figurative works of people who dare to portray the human condition in all its intricate intimacy.
Alice Neel: People Come First opens at a moment of enormous humanitarian crisis as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine. As we see statistics of casualties and mass footage of panic and mass exodus from cities, it can be difficult to put the human cost into context. It’s never a bad time for an Alice Neel retrospective, but over the past two years there has been a particularly pressing need to reconsider work that focuses on the value of individual life.
Alice Neel: People Come First: Painting. 9:30am-5:15pm Tuesday-Sunday. Saturday March 12th to July 10th. $15-$30. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF 415-750-3600. deyoung.famsf.org