On ViewThe Met Fifth Avenue
People Come First
March 22 – August 1, 2021
It must be evening, because the sky is the color of soot. The elevated subway rattles overhead and an oval of smoke hangs from a factory stack. But what matters most is the boys playing ball in the street, and the four little girls who scamper in circles beyond them, and the old woman, dressed in black, who carries a bundle under each arm, and the men, alone and in pairs, coming home from the docks. In her 1936 painting Longshoremen Returning from Work, Alice Neel builds layers of narrative into an ordinary moment easily missed, rendering the figures who populate her cityscape with the tenderness and respect found throughout her work.
Curators Randall Griffey and Kelly Baum gather more than 100 of the artist’s paintings, watercolors and drawings in Alice Neel: People Come First, a retrospective of the 60 years Neel spent transposing New York and its citizens into work that bears witness to the struggles of everyday life in the city as much as it dignifies the individual. Loosely organized by theme, the show is more of a ramble through the faces and lives Neel sought out as subjects as she moved neighborhoods, raised children, and participated in social activism and an ever-changing art scene, diligently painting through most of the 20th century.
Arriving in New York during the Great Depression, Neel witnessed the poverty and hopelessness that gripped the working class. In Synthesis of New York—The Great Depression (1933), two dress-forms, winged like angels, ascend into a night sky above a sidewalk populated by hunched-over skeletons dressed in suits and coats. Below them, the 34th Street subway platform stands abandoned, silent as a tomb. A humanist, Neel also identified with Marxist and Communist ideals that promoted equity, principles that weave through work that includes urban scenes, domestic interiors, and the body of portraits for which she is best known.
As a young mother living without means, Neel painted in her apartment while tending to her children. The Family, a watercolor from 1927, shows Carlos Enríquez, then Neel’s husband, reclining on a sofa, one hand clutching the arm of their infant daughter who lies beside him. Neel, topless but wearing a skirt and slippers, bends over them, eyes closed, breasts drooping, as she rests her head beside the baby. The image captures the chaos of life with a newborn and the exhaustion of early parenting. Neel’s toddler son fills the composition of the painting Hartley on the Rocking Horse (1943), while the artist herself, reflected small in a dark square of mirror in the background, looks on, paintbrush in hand. To say the images portray the difficulty of juggling motherhood with an artmaking practice underestimates the artist’s ability to synthesize the elements of a full if complicated life; Neel brings candor and honesty to moments seldom described on canvas, acknowledging the way motherhood only deepened her work.
Neel’s choice of subjects for her portraits ranges from neighbors and family members to social activists and art world celebrities. She painted her sons and their wives, Andy Warhol, civil rights leader James Farmer, art historian Linda Nochlin, and a door-to-door salesman named Dewald Strauss who had escaped Dachau. Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965) is an unfinished canvas of a young man who had been drafted into the Vietnam War, painted a week before he left home. When he did not return to sit for Neel again, she declared the work complete. In Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) a pair of sisters who look to be barely in kindergarten sit sleepy-eyed in dresses and knee socks. Waiting for the painter to finish seems to be what’s going on, and Neel is as devoted to capturing that as she is to the act of painting. Rendering their hands and faces in exacting detail, she then revels in the pure application of red and grey paint which suggests their skirts and the shadowy wall behind them. Pregnant Woman (1971), a painting of her daughter-in-law, is one of several nudes which revel in the plasticity of a body great with child, abdomen extended, nipples swollen and red. Neel’s delight in the pregnant body and its absurd proportions deftly liberates the female form from erotic object to cause for wonder.
Thoughtful, moving, masterful, Neel’s dapplings of color and thick loose lines beg to be looked at for an eternity as she reconsiders corners of life deemed unimportant or even repulsive. In Self-Portrait (1980), completed four years before her death, the artist poses nude. Shocking and vulnerable, the image departs from cultural definitions of beauty, but like its maker, transcends all of that. Flaccid-bellied and saggy-breasted, she is unapologetic—why shouldn’t she be? Her paintbrush remains in her hand, and her gaze retains its intense curiosity, the very thing that gives her work—and the show—its power.