The lines were packed at 10 a.m. on the last day of Alice Neel’s exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just the day before, The New York Times indicated the inclusive exhibit places Neel solidly among the greatest masters of the 19th and 20th centuries. The show does indeed facilitate a stunning experience of Neel’s oeuvre dating from 1925 to 2012 - and includes a multitude of portraits, landscapes, interiors, and even graphics.
A stark, expressionistic portrait of Margaret Evans opens the show.
Evans sits nude, expecting, her gaze charged. Her body is almost surreal in its examined late pregnancy, even humorous. Behind me, facing Evans, Neel’s artistic beginnings rest serenely as an anonymous model swathed in browns, “French Girl” (1925). Neel’s sense of abstraction and quality of light are on the edge. She could easily have become an abstract expressionist. But for her entire career she remained rooted in the figure, and in portraiture. Evans’ portrait may be where Neel began to enter the depth of her talent but behind me, facing Evans, ”French Girl” is where Alice Neel began. The awareness of light on form, the sitter’s tender chin, the slope of shoulder and arm angled inside cloth take the early portrait study into the terrain of pathos and the sublime.
Neel painted neighbors and friends in Spanish Harlem, where she lived. She drew and painted expectant women - an unprecedented subject at the time, activists and children, including her own, and artistic contemporaries. She possessed a powerful gift for conveying the indomitable human spirit. In the second room two incredible paintings hang side by side: “Georgie Arce No. 2” (1955) and “Two Girls, Spanish Harlem” (1959) gaze back to a standing audience and it takes me some time to get close to them.
In the next rooms, life-sized - and larger - portraits of her fellows hold viewers in thrall. Unflinching portraits hang close and share the room’s atmosphere as though physical space is of little consequence. Each painting is a door to a person’s world, and to an alchemy that defies the actual space available for the works. Her focus is daunting. Skillful with paint, she is also sensitive to a more difficult endeavor: the painter as editor, selecting moves that illumine the resonant truth of person and place. I know she looked at and absorbed an enormous amount of technique. Knowledge of Van Gogh’s tilted space is here, Schiele’s hands and gaze, Ben Shahn’s tilted postures, Gaugin’s dark lines. But Neel’s technique with line is more sparingly employed than Gaugin, even more compositionally sensitive. In her hand the hard line is but one instrument in an enormous orchestral toolbox.
Her portraits hold clarity, not sentimentality. Working city life calls from worn hands and countenances of many origins. Her subjects, painted with dignity and humor, are not “characters”, but intriguing people navigating the turbulent 20s, the 30s, the 40s and beyond. Their strengths and vulnerabilities are rendered with a mostly gritty palette, an urgency in the brushwork and compositional boldness that resonate profoundly. Sometimes her subjects look away, toward another figure in the composition as in the poignant rendering of a Harlem couple, entitled Rita and Hubert (1958).
Near the collection’s mid-point, specific Neel paintings hang beside similar compositions from masters such as Henri, Soutine, Valodon, and Lawrence. The life-long learning and synthesis that artists do is clear. One moves between masters, following paint as one might follow speech across oceans - an extremely alive narrative looping backward and forward through time.
The portraits of artists, writers and activists of her mature years show reductive moves, leaving canvas bare, shortening the length or angle of a figure’s core to force the subject and viewer to share space. Her portrait, “Warhol” (1970) is masterful, conveying attitude and delicacy at once. As I walk, I hear shadows of conversations. Museum-goers crane, not wanting to move.
In every painting, Neel illumines her subjects as unforgettable. One encounters a Neel more than “looks at it”. Standing before her portraits, one is pulled inside each painting’s moment. The paintings belong to her personal and political life and to the people she encountered in all their fullness. Her initial talent, the respect she accumulated as an artists’ artist over decades, and her continued growth as a draftswoman and painter converge on one thing: she never let up. There was true, deep personal tragedy from which she recovered, but once she left Greenwich Village and planted herself way uptown, she painted with energy and focus and she nourished her personal values with her art. She continuously expanded her sensibility, becoming more reductive with certain subjects, or gentler, harsher, more exacting and humorous, sometimes telling more with less, always painting with fierce energy and clarity what she saw and felt. Alice Neel’s magnificently curated retrospective leaves me with no doubt: people do come first.