Like the Morgan, with its David Hockney show, The Metropolitan Museum of Art knows that the surest way to pack in crowds – even in a pandemic – is to give them representational images of "contemporary" people in a "contemporary" style. Thus we have "Alice Neel: People Come First" within its hallowed halls (through August 1). When I visited it (on April 8) the line stretched from the elevators nearest Fifth Avenue to Galleries 999, on the west side of the building. Nor will this be the end of Neel's exposure: the show is scheduled for the Guggenheim Bilbao (September 17 to January 23, 2022) AND the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (March 12, 2022 to July 10, 2022. Michelangelo, eat your heart out!
The Met is billing Alice Neel (1905-1984) as "one of the century's most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art…." And it may be necessary to go back to "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" to explain that "radical" in politics can be (and in this case is) the polar opposite of "radical" in art.
Not that Neel's many portraits are actually kitsch. They're not comic strips on the order of Bugs Bunny or Popeye, who were originally intended to amuse children and/or working-class types.
Instead, in the course of a perfectly ordinary artistic development, she achieved a semi-professional style of portraiture that served her well enough through the decades to earn her a modest level of recognition by the '60s, at any rate to insiders like Lida Moser (1920-2014).
Moser was a well-known photojournalist, whose portrait Neel painted in 1963 and which is now owned by the Met. You won't see it in the current show, though – it is too sober and – well, for lack of a better word, normal.
Nor will you see Neel's 1966 portrait of Moser's niece, Sarah Elizabeth Hewitt, though it went for $281,000 at auction in 2015. Again, the woman looks too chic and well-dressed, and --- well, normal.
Still less can you expect to see her portrait of John I. H. Baur (1909-1987), a longtime curator at the Brooklyn Museum who was far better-known as longtime associate director of the Whitney. He too looks like any other upper-echelon businessman in his gray suit, and this portrait would be at home on the boardroom wall of any corporation.
But wait a minute! Neither Baur nor anybody else appears to have actually commissioned this portrait. It was given to the Brooklyn Museum after Neel's death by her two sons, Richard and Hartley. And here you have the essential distinction between Neel and your run-of-the-mill portraitist.
With what seem to have been only a comparatively small number of exceptions (most notably the cover portrait of feminist Kate Millett that Time magazine published in1970) many & maybe most of Neel's portraits don't appear to have been actually commissioned by their subjects.
Instead, she typically chose her subjects and asked them to sit for her. Then, if she thought they (or their parents, if they were children) could afford her prices, she invited her subjects (or their parents) to buy the finished portrait.
If this gambit didn't work, she would keep the portrait in her well-stocked inventory and/or offer it up for sale at her next gallery show. For make no mistake about this: however noble and politically "radical" were her choices of subject, in the end their portraits were supposed to be a way of supporting their maker financially, and (except for a dry spell in the 1940s) her paintings were a regular fixture on the gallery scene.
Neel's entry in Wikipedia is curious. The author is clearly more enthusiastic about her pictures of naked women than all the rest of her oeuvre put together, but at the end of his/ her essay, there is a "selected exhibition history" that includes more than 40 gallery and museum shows between 1927 and the current show at the Met.
Although no distinction is made between solo and group exhibitions, the list indicates that Neels' work was at least seen at several highly-respectable commercial galleries, including the A.C.A. (venue for so many left-wing artists in the 1930s) in 1936, 1938, 1939, 1950, and 1954.
Next appear entries for the Graham Gallery, in 1963, 1966, 1968, 1970 and 1979.
To flesh out any possible gaps in this list (especially between 1982 and 2017), I also consulted the New York Times database. Here I learned that in addition to showing at Robert Miller in 1982, two years before her death, she (or rather her estate) had shows at Robert Miller in 1986, 1994, 2000 and 2002.
From the Times database, moreover, I learned that all but one of these shows was greeted with enthusiasm by critics of the Times, from a brief but laudatory write-up by Howard Devree of Neel's first solo exhibition in 1938 at Contemporary Arts ("excellent") on up to the paroxysms of joy evinced by Roberta Smith in response to the current exhibition at the Met.
"Right Where She Belongs," is the huge headline to Smith's review in the paper's April 2 edition, suggesting that Neel belongs right up there with Velázquez and Rembrandt – and buttressing her argument with a review that occupies most of Page One of the paper's Weekend Arts section, plus two full pages on the inside of the section.
Okay, I know that with the pandemic, the Times's critics are hard up for shows to review, and that gallery advertisements have withered away as well –leaving Smith & Co. with acres of space to fill….but is Neel really on a par with the Old Masters?
I don't think so.
True, there was a time when I too greatly admired Neel. This was back in the first half of 1974, shortly before I entered graduate school, but nearly a decade before I came out of my Greenbergian closet. During this period, I suggested & published an article in ARTnews on Neel.
For this I interviewed her in her apartment/studio on West 107th Street (it was situated right where West End Avenue ends and Morningside Heights begins; there is a fine painting of it in the current show).
I don't have a copy of the ARTnews article, but during this period I was also covering cultural news in New Jersey for the New Jersey edition of the New York Times-- and those stories are in the NY Times database.
The Summit Art Center in Summit, NJ, had a show of Neel's paintings and I wrote about that, too, concluding with this remark: "Miss Neel considers herself a social commentator, a chronicler of 'the passing show,' and her vision is large enough to encompass its many facets."
I can't remember what I wrote about Neel's early life in the ARTnews article, but I've learned an awful lot about what else was going on during that same period since, both from working on my dissertation and from working on my memoir. What I've learned helps me to see Neel in a more comprehensive context than is offered by either the Met or by Neel admirers like Roberta Smith.
Both – in keeping with the current vogue for elevating women artists to the stratosphere -- strive to present her as a uniquely passionate political and artistic advocate for "realism" who almost singlehandedly fought a gallant battle of principle against those dastardly male chauvinists, the abstract expressionists.
However, as I see it, she was always part of a larger and infinitely less threatened group, both in the 1930s, when her artistic and political outlook were formed, and from the 1950s onward.
Neel was born at the very end of the 19th century, on January 29th, 1900, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Her father was an accountant with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which to me anyway suggests that the family was at the very least middle-class.
Her Wikipedia chronicler says that she had to work for several years after she graduated from high school to help support her family, but she was already taking night school classes In art, and in 1921 enrolled full-time at the Philadelphia School of Design (now Moore College of Art & Design).
There one of her teachers would have been Robert Henri, senior member of "the Ashcan School" and as such an early proponent of urban realism -- in other words, already setting young Alice on her eventual path.
Upon graduation in 1925, she married an upper-class Cuban painter named Carlos Enriquez and moved to Havana to live with his family. Here it seems she fell in with the local avant-garde of young writers, artists and musicians.
This may have laid the groundwork for her political and artistic convictions, but In 1927, Alice and Carlos returned to the U.S., taking with them their infant daughter, Santillana. Alas, Santillana soon died of diphtheria, and shortly thereafter, Carlos left Alice and went back to Cuba, taking with him their second child, Isabetta.
The strain of all of this upheaval gave Neel a nervous breakdown, but when she emerged from a Philadelphia sanatorium in 1931, she settled in New York – first in Greenwich Village, then in Spanish Harlem, and only later in the apartment on West 107th Street where I interviewed her.
It was during her Greenwich Village period, I would imagine, that she first became friendly with the first of the many bohemian types who would populate her paintings over the years, as well as the Communists and other left-wing types who would furnish alternate fodder for her brushwork.
In one of the early galleries of the Neel show at the Met is a whole collection of paintings of Marxist and other left-wing politicos, and in later galleries is plentiful evidence of her dedication to portraying the poor and downtrodden, especially African Americans and Latinos of all ages and sexes.
The Met treats this subject matter as though Neel was the only artist in 20th century American history with the social conscience to portray it.
Actually during the 1930s there was already a whole school of painters known as the "Social Realists," who specialized in this genre. Neel wasn't alone when she started doing it: she was in the company of Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, William Gropper and others.
Not that the imagery of any of these artists replicated her imagery, or the imagery of each other: it was just the thing to do in the midst of the Great Depression, when extremist politics of all kinds flourished as capitalism faced its greatest trial and millions were out of work. As the title and refrain of a hit musical comedy song of the era had it, "Sing Me a Song with Social Significance."
Moreover, even in the 1950s, as a "realist," she had plenty of company. Ab-ex never took over the entire artistic landscape.
Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Leland Bell, Grace Hartigan and divers others were all going strong in the 1950s, and of course ever since pop came along in the 1960s, figuration has been in like Flynn.
Neel is also known for her portraits of naked people – I suppose I ought to say "nude," but the figures are so matter of fact that they lack the glamor of more traditional nudes. A lot of these nudes are members of her immediate family: over the years, she had an assortment of lovers, and produced Richard and Hartley (during the 1930s and early 1940s, she helped to support these sons by working for the WPA, which is the probably the closest the U.S. of A. has ever come to Communism).
Anyway these sons grew to maturity, married and begat children, so she had a whole family to draw upon for nudes (as well as pictures of them fully-dressed). In addition, when people wanted her to do their portraits, she would ask them if they'd be willing to pose nude – some said yes, some said no. Thus in this show we have Linda Nochlin (1931 -2017), the art historian specializing in 19th century French art, and her daughter Daisy, fully accoutered -- but Cindy Nemser (1937 – 2021) ardent feminist art critic and her husband Chuck in the raw.
I could go on and on about this show. There is obviously lots to see, starting with a full-length portrait of "Margaret Evans Pregnant" (1978), a nearly-ready to birth naked woman carrying twins.
But if you have already seen other Neel paintings or even a whole gallery of them, don't go expecting to see the more genteel kinds of portraits that – I strongly suspect – furnished Neel's bread and butter.
Rather, the dadaist emphasis is on the bizarre, the outré, the calculated to startle and to shock – which at one and the same time is an emphasis on all the underprivileged members of society that are so very fashionable in diversity-loving Manhattan right now.
In addition to the left-wing politicos, the minorities, the women, and the nudity, we have not one but three pairs of gays, ranging in costume from relatively conservative to flamboyant. The most conservative one – with both partners fully-clothed in casual masculine attire – shows "Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian" (1978).
This image is used to promote the show, and I feel somewhat close to it because Hendricks (1931-2018), a Fluxus artist, attended Putney, the same progressive prep school that I did (though he was a few years ahead of me, so I never knew him personally).
The most-daring painting among these pairs shows "Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd" (1970). It depicts a couple of colorful characters from Andy Warhol's Factory,
Though only Curtis is dressed in drag, her close conjunction to Redd leaves no doubt about their relationship, and Redd at the very least indicates his transsexual predilections by his shoulder-length blondish hair.
Curtis is in full feminine getup, with a skirt hiked up clear around her/his hips exposing long feminine-looking legs in black panty hose. S/he also wears a blouse with a plunging neckline and quantities of rouge, eyeshadow and lipstick.
The medium-daring image of gays in this sequence depicts "David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock" (1970). I feel even closer to this painting because although I never met Battcock I did know Bourdon and have a lot to be grateful to him for.
In the 1960s, he was the Art reporter on Life, reporting to Dorothy Seiberling, and I met him when I was writing the Art page for Time (I have one particularly vivid memory of standing next to him in front of a Kenneth Noland stripe painting at André Emmerich in 1967. This was when we introduced ourselves to each other).
After Life folded in the early '70s, Bourdon was lured down to Washington by Edward K. Thompson, a top Life editor who was just setting up the Smithsonian Magazine, and who hired Bourdon to be his art editor.
When I read a short article about this new magazine in the New York Times, I sent Thompson my resume and he passed it along to Bourdon, who hired me for what would over the course of several years turn out to be seven or eight Smithsonian Magazine articles.
None of them were groundbreaking or esthetic triumphs, dealing with figures as widely accepted as Marsden Hartley, Max Ernst and Ellsworth Kelly—but Smithsonian paid very well, so this work was exceedingly welcome from a financial point of view.
Long before I'd completed those articles, Bourdon had relocated to New York – and there he introduced me to AICA, the International Association of Art Critics, and sponsored me for membership in its U. S. Chapter.
As AICA's membership card functions as a press pass, it has saved me untold fortunes in museum admissions and is another reason I'm grateful to Bourdon. During the early years of AICA's U.S. chapter, its meetings were conducted on an informal basis with a very small number of participants, so I got to meet a number of my fellow art critics as well…
I was really sorry when Bourdon died of esophageal cancer in 1998 at the age of only 63, and went to a memorial service for him conducted in a Roman Catholic church somewhere on the outskirts of Greenwich Village.
In Neel's portrait of Bourdon, he is sitting upright and is very formally dressed, in a suit and with a striped tie. Gregory Battcock, by comparison, is depicted slouching and in his undies plus red socks.
The painting's label identifies him as a fellow art critic, educator and activist who was Bourdon's "friend, colleague and likely occasional intimate partner." The way I heard it, Bourdon may also have made it with Warhol, and even Wikipedia says that Warhol's "Blue Movie" was filmed in Bourdon's Greenwich Village apartment.
I also know that Bourdon wrote a book about Warhol that he couldn't at first get published, but eventually Abrams bought it and it was published in 1989.
I find ---as I slide into all this reminiscence -- that I am growing so nostalgic for the old days when I thought Neel was the bee's knees that I may not be the best person to offer a dispassionate judgment about this gaudy show.
Although there is a lot of color and personality to Alice Neel's paintings, they are not very expertly done. I am bothered in particular by the way she painted the legs of her seated sitters, the fact that they are far too short for the upper parts of those sitters' bodies.
What seems to have started out as ineptitude became calcified into a mannerism.
I also get a little irked by the cartoony nature of the faces she drew – by what Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) called her "expressionist caricature." Kramer seems to have been the only New York Times critic who was not charmed by Neel -- his review of her 1974 retrospective at the Whitney is so withering that I refrain from quoting it at greater length.
Still, I too am very aware of the way that Neel depicted her subjects as quintessentially neurasthenic and/or neurotic – even or perhaps especially when portraying the upper-middle class, Upper West Side men, women and children who represented at once her prime market and her prime source of subjects.
Still if you feel in an uncritical mood, and are not too bothered by technical flaws you may very well enjoy this show. A lot of the cityscapes are very nice – and even Clement Greenberg approved of the landscapes that Neel made in the 1940s when she had a country house in Spring Lake (or so she told Nemser in an interview for a 1975 book called "Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists").
There are none of these landscapes in the Met's show, though, and with about 100 works on view, it is still far too long. Feel free to skip those galleries where the organizers of the show attempt to pair off Neel's work with older masters, or try to show that she was really a formalist at heart.
Above all, don't kid yourself: this is not on a par with Rembrandt or Velázquez. Maybe a 20th century version of Honoré Daumier or Thomas Rowlandson would about cut it. Which, all things considered, is not bad.