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Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty

Alice Neel was born into a proper Victorian family at the turn of the century, and came of age during suffrage. The quintessential Bohemian, she spent more than half a century, from her early days as a WPA artist living in the heart of the Village, through her Whitney retrospective in 1974, until her death ten years later, painting, often in near-obscurity, an extraordinarily diverse population—from young black twins in Harlem to the elderly Jewish twin artists, Raphael and Moses Soyer, to Meyer Schapiro and Linus Pauling, to the American Communist Party chairman Gus Hall—creating an indelible portrait of 20th century America.

In every aspect of her own life, Neel dictated her own terms—whether it was defiantly painting figurative pieces at the height of Abstract Expressionism, convincing her subjects to disrobe (which many of them did, includingly, surprisingly, Andy Warhol) or bartering her work for scholarships for her sons at the Rudolph Steiner School. No wonder she became the de fact artist of the Feminist movement (When Time Magazine put Kate Millet on its cover in 1970, she was asked to paint the portrait.) Very much in touch with her time, Neel was also always ahead of it. Although she herself would probably have rejected such labels, she was America’s first feminist, multicultural artist, a populist painter for the ages.

Neel managed to transcend her often tragic circumstances, surviving the death from diphtheria of her infant daughter Santillana, her first child by the renowned Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez, with whom she lived in Havana for a year before returning to America, where Carlos later joined her; the break-up of her marriage; a nervous breakdown and several suicide attempts in her late twenties, for which she was institutionalized for over a year; and the terrible sedparation from her second child, Isabetta, whom Carolos took back to Havana, where she was brought up by the Enriquez family.

Although Neel suffered enormously, she never became a victim. Unlike Frida Haklo, whose work brilliantly fetishized her personal pain, Neel tgransofrmed her deepest wounds into her most humanistic work. And unlike Mary Cassatt, who beautifully chronicled family life in the 19th century, but never married or had children, Neel painted from firsthand experience of the vicissitudes—and rewards—of marriage and motherhood. She accurately called herself a “collector of souls,” and spoke of her oeuvre, in homage to Balzac, as “The Human Comedy.” I paint my time using the people as evidence, she once said.

The story of Alice Neel is the story of a fiercely unconventional woman and artist, who, without ever being a careerist, managed to carve out a significant niche in art history through sheer tenacity, a keen intellect and a tireless drive to paint the truth. Her prolific output captures a universe of power personalities—and documents an age. Neel painted through the Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution of the 60’s, feminism, and the go-go eighties. She was in her late seventies before she began to receive serious critical acclaim. Today she is widely considered a major 20th century artist.