She had no business moving uptown. Generally, nice white lady artists like Alice Neel lived among their own kind, down in the Village, or they went wherever the male painters went and helped make those guys’ stories happen first. But Neel always wanted a different kind of life, so in 1938, at the age of thirty-eight, she chose to leave what she disparagingly called the “honky-tonk” atmosphere of the Village and move to Spanish Harlem—where European immigrants were giving way to Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants. She learned the place by observing and then painting what she saw and wanted to understand: a “new,” diverse America, populated by men of color, single mothers sitting on stoops, and children in repose. As in Chekhov’s stories, there is no “other” in her unsatirical, pointedly political work—just us, without tears. Community is the family you choose. Neel chose Harlem, and said so in an untitled poem:
Neel moved to Spanish Harlem with José Santiago Negron, a working-class Puerto Rican musician, who fathered her third child, Richard, the following year. (Neel’s first and only husband was the artist Carlos Enríquez Gómez, with whom she had two children: Santillana, born in 1927, who died of diphtheria as an infant, and Isabetta, born in 1928, whom Gómez took to Cuba when she was two, to be reared by his family.) For more than twenty years, Neel’s Harlem apartment, a railroad flat filled with the stuff of life, was her studio and way station, the home where she brought up two kids on welfare—her fourth child, Hartley, the son of the volatile filmmaker Sam Brody, was born in 1941—struggled to get them into good schools, and made work that was pretty much ignored until she became a kind of feminist cause in the early seventies. (She died in 1984.) That she managed to do any of this is just one of the moving narrative threads that run through the spectacular retrospective “Alice Neel: People Come First,” at the Met, through August 1st. Another is her faith not only in the power of other people but in the power and the necessity of articulating the deepest language that makes a self. “You know what it takes to be an artist?” Neel says in Phoebe Hoban’s 2010 biography, “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty.” “Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil. To never give up.”
Born in 1900, Neel was brought up in Colwyn, Pennsylvania, about ten miles outside Philadelphia. Colwyn was a nice enough version of the “old,” or established, America that Neel hardly ever painted. (Not every artist needs to look back in order to look forward.) Her father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and her mother was said to be a descendant of Richard Stockton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Almost from the first, Neel, a sensitive girl who was prone to anxiety, felt steadied by the act of visualizing the world; painting soon became both a gateway into life and a bulwark against people who said that she wasn’t entitled to have one. According to Hoban, when Neel told her grandmother that she wanted to be a painter, the older woman said, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, Alice. You’re only a girl.” Resistance can breed resilience. Talent must be protected, especially if it’s viewed as a threat. And what’s more threatening to the status quo than a visionary?
In 1921, Neel enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. One of her early influences was the work of Robert Henri, a founder of the Ashcan School—a movement that challenged the bourgeois prettiness of the work of the American Impressionists. The Ashcan School focussed on what the Impressionists left out—poverty, dereliction, ugliness. Neel’s developing realism went further. She was not Ashcan but emotional gutbucket, a miner of difficult truths.
The late art historian Linda Nochlin—the subject of a startlingly vivid 1973 portrait in the Met exhibition—describes, in her seminal 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” the nineteenth-century insistence “upon a modest, proficient, self-demeaning level of amateurism as a ‘suitable accomplishment’ for the well-brought up young woman.” A woman painter could have a place in the art world only if she knew how to keep to her place. Neel, born at the start of a new century, wasn’t having any of that. And you can feel her fury and disgust when she describes some of her classmates. “There were all these rich girls who went there as a finishing school,” she says, in Hoban’s book. “I realized that wasn’t what I was there for. . . . For three years I worked so hard because I had a conscience about going to art school.” That conscience made her aware that she could go to school while many others could not. “When I’d go into the school, the scrubwomen would be coming back from scrubbing office floors all night,” she said. “It killed me that these old gray-headed women had to scrub floors, and I was going in there to draw Greek statues.”
You can see Neel’s deep feeling for all that she is not in some of the earliest pieces in the Met show, including the remarkable “Bathing in a Furnished Room” (1927). The painting seems almost to have been rendered from below the surface of objective looking, which is to say pulled up from somewhere—the subconscious? the heart?—that is finely attuned to isolation.
A commonplace observation about great portraitists is that they are always, in some way, painting themselves. Neel’s genius was to make us understand not just her interest in her subjects but why we are interested in one another. “Alice Neel: People Come First,” was co-curated by Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey with clarity and rigor. They have organized the galleries according to eight dominant themes in Neel’s life as a woman and an artist, including home, motherhood, and the nude. Within those categories, the paintings are mostly hung chronologically, so that we can see how Neel developed and changed vis-à-vis each theme. At first, this felt a little too regimented to me, but after a second visit I saw the logic in it: Neel has too many artistic layers for a straight chronological show. There’s a profound spiritual component to the work; her intense and casual surfaces feel like a wall that she wants her subjects’ souls to walk through to meet ours. At times, her focus, her desire to understand who her subjects are and, by extension, who you might be, can have you rushing out of the galleries for a breath of air.
Neel’s paintings never let you rest, and why should they? She never rested. She seemed to be reaching for something her entire life. Love, perhaps, though never safety or security, which were anathema to her. After Santillana died, Neel broke down. There were multiple suicide attempts, and there were men, alternately feckless and controlling, some of whom left her and at least one of whom—Kenneth Doolittle, a sailor and an opium addict—destroyed some of her work. Conflict, absence, loss, humor, drama, and uneasy, temporary resolution characterized her relationships, and one gets the sense that Neel was drawn to trouble in order to test her strength, her pride at being the last one standing amid the rubble and the excitement of living.
One painting in particular underlines all this. When Neel’s daughter Isabetta was nearly six, she visited her mother—the first time they’d seen each other since the girl was a toddler. To mark the occasion, Neel made a painting of Isabetta. After Doolittle slashed the painting, Neel repainted it. In “Isabetta” (1934-35), her daughter, whom Neel knows and does not know, stands nude before her, hands on hips, gazing straight ahead; she is elegant, alien, and cold, like a figurehead on a grand vintage car or a child in a horror film. She seems unsoftened by a mother’s love; indeed, the absence of it may have closed her off. The picture is as much about Isabetta’s defiance—Who can love me? Do you dare?—as it is about Neel’s will to be an artist, to see objectively, even if that means seeing her child’s distance from her. It’s a hard painting to look at, and it’s meant to be; the hard things of life went into making it.
After more than twenty years in Spanish Harlem, Neel moved to an apartment on the Upper West Side. There, her fortunes began to change; younger art critics, including this magazine’s Harold Rosenberg, discovered her work, and praised and supported it. In the early seventies, while she continued to paint New Yorkers who wore their otherness as both a form of fancy dress and a wound—“Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd” and “Andy Warhol,” from 1970, are masterpieces of this kind—her paintings gained in power, in part because of their simplicity. She didn’t show the room in which her subject sat so much as gesture toward it. (The patch of blue in many of the post-Harlem pictures indicates the light from the bare bulb that Neel used to illuminate her sitters.) This was less a matter of time softening Neel’s view than of her authority relaxing into itself.
These great, almost unbearable late works bear witness to a bravura without a trace of self-consciousness. You can see it in “Carmen and Judy” (1972), a portrait of Neel’s cleaning lady nursing her disabled child. The curators point out that it was unusual for a woman of color to expose her body to the artist in this way, and I can vouch for that. Privacy is one of the few defenses there is against poverty and racism. But Carmen was no doubt able to reveal herself to Neel because she knew that Neel would see what she needed to see: Carmen’s trust, Judy’s dependence, all those years of living in a difference that was not difference to the artist, who had her own years of loss, of children’s love, of trying to render this and so much more in works that would continue to live, despite the darkness of her obscurity and then the light of her fame. Looking at Carmen look at Neel, and thus at us, is like staring straight at the sun. We can’t do it, but we try anyway. ♦