ALICE NEEL WAS THE PAINTER par excellence of New York’s human comedy. She rendered friends, sons, lovers, strangers, addicts, activists, self-anointed shamans, cultural kings and queens, the magical, the lost, and the damned in keyed-up, high harmonies of color. She often outlined people in an electric blue that makes every individual vibrate like an archetype. Her gaze is loving but predatory; she seems to feel with her subjects but never fully for them. This connects to her contemporary Andy Warhol—though instead of Warhol’s candy-colored depictions of the rich and famous, Neel mostly made portraits of our fellow beaten ships of the human soul. I love her work.
In March, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its magnificent survey “Alice Neel: People Come First” with more than 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors made from the 1920s until Neel’s death in 1984. By now, she is beatified, almost a fridge-magnet artist like Frida Kahlo—someone whom the New York Times in 2017 dubbed “one of America’s most inventive and peculiar portraitists.” (I’d delete peculiar and replace it with epic.) The Met show is as close as we’re going to get to a mustsee blockbuster in our socially distanced, timed-admission covid moment.
Neel’s story is not only one of great talent but of artistic courage, persistence, and will. Over the course of her life, the painter—who was born in 1900—moved to Cuba then New York, took and shed lovers, became a communist and an ardent civil-rights supporter, was on and off the WPA, was supported by men and supported some, had a nervous breakdown, lived downtown and uptown, was in mixed-race relationships, lost one child then had three more, and never stopped painting. This even though she barely sold a thing and received little recognition until the late 1960s.
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