The DeYoung Museum had a special exhibition in 2022, “Alice Neel: People Come First”. The exhibit traced Alice Neel‘s career. She is a frequently overlooked social realist artist who some consider “the greatest American portraitist of the 20th century.”
Alice Neal’s Perspective
Neel was born into an upper middle-class family in 1900. She immediately began bucking societal expectations and trends. As a child, she became determined to become an artist. After graduating from art school, she aligned herself with the Philadelphia-based Ashcan School which used realist-style, figurative painting to expose and mobilize social action to address social issues. Her work consisted largely of portrayals of daily life in poor, urban (especially New York City) working-class neighborhoods and other under-represented people including women and gays.
While she painted through much of the 1920s, it was something of an artistically lost decade. During this time she was married, saw her first-born daughter die, had her husband leave with her second child, had a mental breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. These traumas—and especially the death of her baby daughter—led to the creation of one of her most famous and charged, disturbing images. “Well Baby Clinic” which portrays Neel and her soon-to-die daughter’s visit to a crowded and chaotic maternity clinic.
She moved to Spanish Harlem (the inspiration for much of her early work) in the early 1930s and effectively relaunched her artistic career with WPA commissions where her Depression-era street scenes and portraits (largely of Communist thinkers and leaders) began to gain recognition. The appreciation and acceptance of her, however, were limited by a combination of her being a woman (not to speak of an ardent feminist) and her continually bucking of artistic trends. For example, she shunned Impressionism in the early 20th century and then abstract expressionism (which she viewed as “anti-humanistic). This being said, a few of her early, and several of her post-1950s works appear as semi-impressionistic landscapes. Others reflect some abstractive techniques and the use of bolder colors, lines, and forms. All, however, reflected her undiminished social consciousness.
The exhibit is organized by theme rather than chronologically. It includes works from the 1930s through 1980. Its shows the evolution of Neel’s style and subject matter.
Among the sections were those devoted to:
- Portraits of poor Spanish Harlem neighbors (including Joe Gould with three penises to reflect his inflated ego), more sympathetic portrayals of numerous women and children and dozens of other victims and champions of oppressed groups such as laborers, gays, transsexuals, AIDS sufferers, Communist intellectuals feminists (especially of a highly confident Kate Millet) and labor organizers (including the particularly poignant funerary painting of Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor. Another particularly biting portrayal was that of her son Richard in “The Corporation Enslaved All These Bright Young Men.”, a son who she viewed as having sold out to capitalism.
- Female Nudes. After painting a number of nude men, she turned her attention to women in the late 1930s. These, however, were not the idealized, classical nudes from Roman antiquity or the gauzy Impressionistic nudes of the late 19th century. They provided honest, often flawed portrayals of women’s (including aging women) bodies. More importantly, she used vibrant lines and colors to capture the sitter’s personality and psychology of in-control women whose personas and roles separate from those of men and the way society traditionally viewed women. In some cases in ways that were very different from the ways her subjects viewed themselves.
- Pregnant Nudes. By the mid-60s long after her own pregnancies, she painted a series of pregnant women which she viewed as just another aspect of human life that is worthy of artistic interpretation and portrayal. These increasingly expressionist images highlight the physical and emotional changes pregnant women undergo and shatter the image of women as sexual objects.
- Nude Self-Portraits, most of which were painted late in her life. She portrayed herself and sometimes her lovers, both in posed settings and as involved in day-to-day activities. This included one, “Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom”, which showed the naked pair urinating. One posed image, painted when Neel was in her eighties still portrays her, sagging breasts, stomach and all, as an artist, paintbrushes in hand.
- Other images range from a series of still-lives of her home and domestic life and the last, semi-completed “Black Draftee”. This, one of the most fascinating paintings of the exhibition, is a poignant portrait of a recently drafted young black man who, head cradled in his hands, gazing into the distance while pondering his impending shipment to Vietnam. While the expressive face is fully rendered, the rest of his body is a blank canvas, boldly outlined in preparation for a second seating for which the soldier never returned.
Although Neel’s work never received the attention it deserved in this country, the Soviet Union recognized this ardent Communist sympathizer’s work. It had a 1981 exhibit which was the Union’s first for a living American artist.
Bouquets to the Arts
The DeYoung also was exhibiting its annual Bouquet to the Arts in which dozens of floral artists are invited to select among DeYoung art works that they express what the art says to them. Following are examples of some of our favorite floral works alongside the art they are interpreting.
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