The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alice Neel was the greatest American portraitist of the 20th century. Her work continues to astonish.

“Nancy and Olivia” (1967) by Alice Neel. Oil on canvas. (Collection of Diane and David Goldsmith/© Estate of Alice Neel)
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NEW YORK — Days after seeing "People Come First," a career-spanning Alice Neel survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an afterimage of her brisk vision of vibrant humanity still pulses behind my eyes. Even in memory, Neel's paintings never sit still. They squirm, shiver and jiggle. Particularly memorable is her astonishing sequence of tender yet frank, unidealized portraits of pregnant women, women in childbirth and women breastfeeding. Regarded cumulatively, they are one of the signal achievements of modern American art.

Neel died in 1984 at age 84. But “People Come First,” which was organized by Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey, is a perfect show for right now. Conspicuously, it answers a ringing, present-day call for institutional inclusiveness. Neel, as a portraitist, was ecumenical. She painted people of color, the poor, the elderly, children, immigrants, gay and transgender people, workers, artists and political activists. She painted them naked and clothed, ailing and healthy, in Greenwich Village in the 1930s and later in Spanish Harlem and, from 1962 on, in West Harlem. She paid attention to them in ways that felt — and still feel — connected to love. (“Love is a phenomenon of attention,” wrote Ortega Y Gasset, a formative influence on Neel in the 1920s.)

But this is only part of what makes “People Come First” timely. Through its driving focus on the singularity of all her subjects, Neel’s work pumps oxygen into a room choking on the exhaust fumes of identity politics. Her acid colors and wry, gorgeously wayward psychology cut through the ideological cholesterol spiking in our body politic to show life as it really is: frail, intense, hilarious, hard-won, ephemeral, contradictory, deeply odd and oh so beautiful.

Girl power

Portraits tell stories, and a body of portraiture, as Neel was keenly aware, adds up to a collective history, a layer cake of successive zeitgeists. Still, painting is visual. So first, a word on her style: It’s all about immediacy. Most of it is quite large, but Neel painted quickly. The colors are risky, bold, fresh. Burnt oranges and limes, powder-blue backgrounds, green shadows on skin, blue contour lines. She loved striking patterns. Nothing pleased her more, you feel, than a plaid shirt or a striped chair.

As she hit her stride in the 1960s and ’70s, Neel played more and more confidently with degrees of finish. Her best portraits combine areas of worked-up detail — especially hands and faces — with areas intentionally left blank or given only cursory treatment. Like a watercolorist, she sometimes composed around these empty areas: For the bright sheen in a sitter’s hair, for instance, or the light-catching folds of a coat sleeve, she would leave quite large areas of the prepared canvas’s exposed white ground layer.

Flirting with degrees of finish to convey greater immediacy was already a staple of modern portraiture (think Degas, Morisot and Sargent). But Neel pushed it into new territory. And her boldness feels tethered to the precariousness of her project: nothing fixed, everything unsettled.

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Neel’s embrace of awkwardness was a rebuke to those who would elevate style and coherence over the messiness of human content. Her vision of the vagaries of human existence was at odds not just with abstraction — which dominated American art during Neel’s prime years — but also with the slickness and virtuosity of Sargent and of later American figure painters such as Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein. Gnarled or elongated fingers, ungainly bodies, oddities of perspective and scale, heavy-handed outlines — these features made Neel’s work feel closer to van Gogh’s.

There is a tightrope quality to Neel’s approach. It can fail spectacularly because it hinges on so many contingencies. Will sitter and artist get on? Will it be more interesting if they don’t? Is Neel feeling brave, tender, turned on? Is the sitter skeptical and tense, or compliant and tractable? How interested will the painter stay in the process as she proceeds? Will something else get her attention? It often did.

These vicissitudes can apply in photographic portraiture, too, but to nothing like the same degree. “In a culture of photography,” the painter Lucian Freud once said, “we have lost the tension that the sitter’s power of censorship sets up in the painted portrait.” A crucial difference between portrait photography and painting, he added, is “the degree to which feelings can enter the transaction from both sides. Photography can do this to a tiny extent, painting to an unlimited degree.”

Neel and her sitters poured all sorts of feelings into these paintings, and that’s what makes them exhilarating.

Consider “Georgie Arce No. 2,” one in a series of paintings of a boy Neel met on a Harlem street in the 1950s (three are in the Met show). Georgie liked posing, and he loved changing things up. Here he perches on the corner of a kitchen chair, as if tired of posing and ready to spring forward. His right hand grips a rubber knife. His face has a hurt, suspicious, possibly frustrated expression. According to the wall label, Neel “remembered him holding [the toy knife] to her throat on occasion.”

“ ‘This was just fun and games,’ Neel said, adding, ‘He was a desperate little character.’ ”

You know Monet and Manet. This female impressionist deserves your attention, too.

Although Neel was the one with the paintbrush, in other words, she was willing to give Georgie an unusual degree of agency. That willingness gives all of her portraits their compelling volatility.

As alive as she was to psychology, Neel was equally determined to capture everything she could about what it feels like to occupy a body. Especially a female body. Her own experiences of motherhood had taken her to hell and back.

The story is too complex to narrate in detail here, but she lost her first child to illness before the girl’s first birthday. Her second child, Isabetta, was born soon after, but Neel was deceived by the girl’s father, who stole Isabetta away to his native Cuba just before she turned 2. Neel had a severe mental breakdown and spent almost a year in the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital. Although she saw Isabetta again, they remained mostly estranged. Neel subsequently had two boys, Richard and Hartley, whom she raised on her own.

More than three decades after those events, Neel painted “Nancy and Olivia,” a flat-out masterpiece. Has any painter ever conveyed the shock, physical awkwardness and bewilderment of new motherhood so persuasively? As with “Georgie Arce No. 2,” the precariousness of the sitter’s position — perched sideways and cross-legged on a wooden chair — is crucial to the overall effect of instability. (Of the painting’s nine legs — human, table or chair — only two make visible contact with any support, and one is the baby’s, too young to bear its own weight.)

In the mother’s right eye, we see her entire iris, evoking both alarm and fatigue (new motherhood: an unrelenting emergency!). Yet there is no note of expressionist overkill. The painting as a whole remains beautiful. Drink in the Cézanne-like panoply of greens and blues, both jangling and harmonized, and you immediately grasp what a wonderful colorist Neel was.

Hardly less remarkable is a painting of the same mother (Neel’s daughter-in-law) four years later, with infant twin girls spread-eagled naked on the couch beside her, one of them guzzling from her vein-mottled breast. Meanwhile, Neel’s series of large paintings of pregnant women from the ’60s and ’70s is simply unprecedented.

The painter’s depictions of boys and men are just as acute. Some of her early efforts appear wooden, but “James Farmer” (1964), “Richard Gibbs” (1968) and the splendidly exposed “John Perreault” (1972) can all be placed in the first rank of American portraiture, as can Neel’s marvelous double portraits: “Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd” (1970), “Linda Nochlin and Daisy” (1973) and “Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian” (1978).

In the context of an institution as august and heavily insured as the Met, the show’s title, “People Come First,” feels like a sly provocation. The phrase comes from an interview Neel gave to the communist periodical the Daily Worker in 1950. She had joined the Communist Party in 1935 and remained intermittently affiliated throughout her life. She claimed that she “was never a good Communist.”

“I hate bureaucracy,” she said. “Even the meetings used to drive me crazy.”

Is that a dodge? To have remained aligned with the Communist Party even after the full extent of Stalin’s murderousness became known, and after the party’s baked-in tendency toward dehumanization became clear to all but the willfully blind, signals something worse than political naivete.

That said, it took courage to be a communist in 1950s America (Neel was personally investigated by the FBI; in their files they described her — accurately enough — as “a Romantic bohemian type Communist”). And there’s no doubt that the ideals behind communism — sympathy for and solidarity with the oppressed, above all — underwrote her art from the beginning.

“I have tried,” she told the Daily Worker, “to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”

To me, in front of Neel’s gorgeous, jolting pictures, even “dignity” and “eternal importance” sound too abstract, too grandiose. Her art makes you lose patience with secondhand rhetoric. Give me Georgie Arce again. Show me Nancy and Olivia.

Alice Neel: People Come First Through Aug. 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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