Discovering an artist for the first time is a thrill that thousands are having this summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster “Alice Neel: People Come First.” The exhibit is the first retrospective of the artist’s work in twenty years, and the exhibit has been a sweet, post-pandemic gift to those had the chance to get to the show. For those who didn’t know much about Neel and have caught the bug from the excitement filtering out of New York, it’s a chance to dive deeply into her work. If you will be in NYC before the show closes on August 1, 2021, grab tickets now. And, the rest of us can look forward to the show traveling to the Fine Arts Museum San Francisco from March 12 to July 10, 2022.
In the meantime, why not immerse yourself in all things Alice? Start by watching the Met’s Virtual Opening video (below) to understand her interests in social justice and New York, and her commitment to “pictures of people”.
In between her birth in 1900 and death in 1984, Alice Neel lived a decidedly modern but assuredly complicated life. Here is a brief but illustrative timeline from her estate’s website. She had children with several men and lived in New York her whole life, parenting and painting together in one apartment because she could not afford a studio. Through it all, she remained true to depicting the lives of people she knew. I love how Met curator Kelly Baum tells us that Neel lived a life, and painted subjects, that she “wasn’t supposed to”.
It’s easy to revere someone who defied convention after the fact, when looking at a museum show. In the case of many artists, we can peer back with rose-colored glasses – but not with Neel. Part of what is so arresting about getting know her is that it’s impossible to separate the work from the struggles she endured. Perhaps that why the celebration of her work is especially sweet now.
This 1980 photo of her standing next to her first self-portrait – a nude at 80 – tells you just about all your need to know about the bravery and brilliance of her unique vision of life in the last century.
Neel identified with the underbelly of society, and bore witness to the lives of those not always portrayed in art – the underserved, and most notably, women. Her depictions of women’s lives were not the idyllic peans to motherhood, but showed women at the end of pregnancy, in labor, and managing the lives of children.
Other Resources of note:
Hilton Als on the show at the Met (in the New Yorker) and you can also hear him speak with Kelly Baum about the show here.