Alice Neel – People Come First

A new exhibit of the iconic painter opens at the MET.

Painting by Alice Neel

The New York painter Alice Neel was born in 1900 and passed away in 1984. She lived through both World Wars, the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation. She was alive during the assassinations of William McKinley, JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. Suffice to say she’d seen the best and worst of America in her eighty-four years and what she saw she painted. From the A list celebrities to the unknown children of Spanish Harlem this magnificent artist captured the country in a way no one has done before or since and now the Metropolitan Museum of Art features the first New York retrospective of her work in over twenty years with Alice Neel: People Come First.

Alice Neel, “Elenka”, 1938
Alice Neel, “T.B. Harlem,” 1940, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in. (76.2 x 76.2 cm); 1983.24

Neel had an extraordinarily difficult time as a young adult. When she was 24 she traveled to Cuba where she met the avant garde painter Carlos Enriquez. The couple were married in 1925 and shortly after that they relocated to New York. They had a daughter, Santillana, who died of diphtheria before she was a year old. In 1928 she had a second daughter named Isabella but in 1930 Enriquez told Neel he was taking their daughter and searching for places where they all could live in Paris. Instead he took Isabella and returned to Cuba, leaving Neel behind. Neel had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, later attempting suicide. She was released from the sanitarium in 1931 and moved back in with her parents. She recovered and moved back to New York. During the Great Depression she was one of the first artists to work for the Works Progress Administration and her work soon came to be recognized. The exhibition at the MET spans the entirety of the artist’s career, from her professional launch in Cuba in the 1920s and her work as part of the W.P.A. in the 1930s, through her resolute commitment to centering the figure in her painting at a time when abstraction was ascendant, in the 1940s and 1950s; her resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s; and the emergence of her “late style” in the 1980s.

Alice Neel, “Mercedes Arroyo” 1952

“Alice Neel was an outstanding painter whose iconic ‘pictures of people,’ as she called her portraits, radiate her fierce personal belief in humanity’s inherent dignity and her steadfast social conscience,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “This important exhibition places Neel’s life and art within the context of the 20th century, considering them both in relation to the major events and upheavals of the time. Throughout her long career, Neel remained true to her own vision—despite many obstacles—and today her imagery resonates with our own challenging cultural and political circumstances in striking ways.”

The stunning imagery and unique style secure her place as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

Alice Neel “Kenneth Fearing” 1935

The exhibit, which goes through August of 2021, coincides with the publication of the first paperback edition of Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty a biography of the artist by Phoebe Horan. The book, which originally came out in 2010, details Neel’s life as a New Yorker, moving from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem and finally settling on the Upper West side of Manhattan. Her work is powerful and diverse. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Horan tells us why she feels Neels paintings are as relevant now as they ever were. As a painter who throughout her entire career documented a widely diverse population, from Spanish Harlem neighbours to Nobel laureates, from civil rights leaders to art world luminaries, Neel literally covered the waterfront. And her work has a strong and direct connection with contemporary politics and events, whether it is the Black Lives Matter or the LBGTQ movement. Neel’s subjects included the poor, the rich, the black, the brown, the straight, the gay, the transgender, the young and the old. She was, as I wrote in the introduction and in the book, arguably “America’s first feminist, multiculturally conscious artist, a populist painter for the ages”.

Alice Neel, “Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd” 1970
Alice Neel, “T.B. Harlem,” 1940, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in. (76.2 x 76.2 cm); 1983.24

Following its presentation at The Met, the exhibition will travel to Guggenheim Bilbao (September 17, 2021–January 23, 2022) and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (March 12, 2022–July 10, 2022). The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Yale University Press.

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