The Intimist

Alice Neel’s paintings brim with immense curiosity and feeling for the lives of her fellow humans.

Alice Neel, Black Draftee (James Hunter), 1965, detail. Oil on canvas, 152,4 × 101,6 cm.

The North American painter Alice Neel’s (1900–1984) career spanned the Great Depression, the Second World War, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, as well as the occasional feminist wave. Several of these historical events, Neel, an invested observer, caught on canvas. In Every Person Is a New Universe, on view at Munch Museum in Oslo, we find works from the entirety of her decades long practice. 

The exhibition includes work from the artist’s time as a student at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. They are tentative and stylistically anonymous portraits. We also find several works that Neel created for the Public Works of Art Project (1933–34), part of president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of reforms, regulations, and other measures implemented to offer economic relief for impoverished US citizens following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. 3700 artists received a humble salary to produce and deliver artworks to the state. During this period, Neel created a series of paintings depicting strikes, demonstrations, the living conditions of the working poor, and desolate cityscapes. The majority of the works in the exhibition, however, are representative of the colourful and expressive portraits of the cultural elite, neighbours and acquaintances that made Alice Neel famous, mainly from the 1970s. 

The museum has chosen to focus on the artist’s eccentric personality, turbulent private life, and social engagement, both in the selection of works and their mediation. Neel’s long-lasting sympathy with the American Communist party is a recurring topic. The time the artist spent in Cuba during the 1920s with her husband Carlos Enríquez influenced her political temperament. The American artist and critic John Perrault described Neel as a “jolly Stalinist to the end.” Where there’s little evidence that Neel was a towering political thinker, it is clear that she socialised with and portrayed important figures from the Left, in a USA where affinities with radical left politics and politicians was risky, even dangerous. Portraits of the American Communist party’s leader Gus Hall (Gus Hall, 1981) and the labour organizer Ella Reeve Bloor (Death of Mother Bloor, 1951) are included in the exhibition. 

The paintings the artist produced while she was part of the Public Works of Art Project are pronouncedly different in style and – I am tempted to say – quality from her later portraits. Among the former, we find somber motifs from a New York City shown as desolate de Chirico-like cityscapes. Stylised human shapes with ghostlike faces move about in Longshoremen Returning From Work (1936) and Synthesis of New York – The Great Depression (1933). Passions are higher in the agitative, naively painted Nazis Murder Jews (1936) and the somewhat later Save Bobby McGee (1950). Here, throngs of people are protesting in the style of George Grosz. Despite the drama in these social realistic scenes, the paintings lack the unmistakeable intensity of the artist’s more intimate studies. 

Neel mentions both Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) and Francisco Goya (1746–1828) as artistic inspirations and role models. If one looks at, for example, Velázquez’s startling portrait of Pope Innocent X, where His Holiness looks like evil personified, or Goya’s hysterically crass depictions of the Spanish royal family during his time as court painter, her feelings of kinship make sense. The American did not seek to beautify her sitters. No wrinkle or flaw went unnoticed. But where the Spaniards were critiquing power in their unflattering portraits, Neel’s models were people from her own family, social circle, or neighbours from low-income areas.

Alice Neel, Nazis Murder Jews, 1936. Oil on canvas, 106,7 × 76,2 cm.

In the beautiful, but uneasy piéta Carmen and Judy (1972), we find Carmen Gordon, a political refugee from Haiti and Neel’s housekeeper. Gordon is seated, with one breast bared, holding a scrawny baby (Judy) on her lap. Her gaze is unflinching, her smile inscrutable. The child is not nursing, but lies, with open mouth and vacant eyes, in her mother’s lap. Gordon’s hand touches the child’s in a consoling gesture; the baby in the double-portrait died shortly after the painting was made. Less tragic examples of Neel’s tender portraits of children are also represented in the exhibition. In The Spanish Family (1943), we find a young woman and three children leaning against an iron fence and looking somewhat bored. Andrew (1978) portrays the artist’s newborn grandson. Andrew Neel’s documentary film about his grandmother (Alice Neel, 2007), is screened inside a black box in the final part of the exhibition. 

Neel’s sharply outlined sitters often float around in undefined spaces that evoke Edouard Manet’s crystalline painting The Fifer (1866). In Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), only the model’s face and hand are fully rendered. The rest of his figure is merely a quick sketch on the raw canvas. Hunter had just been drafted for the Vietnam War, and never returned after their first session. It’s a disquieting work, as if the young body is already in the process of being erased. The artist did not shy away from discomfort, on the contrary. In the group portrait The Family (Algis, Julie, and Bailey) (1968), we find two young parents posing with their newborn baby. The father is seen in a wide-legged cowboy stance, holding the baby on his hip.  The mother stands in the background, wedged in and cropped by the picture frame. Her legs are so spindly, and her face so youthful, that she herself resembles a prepubescent child. 

I would have loved to see more of Neel’s striking female nudes, which include colleagues, neighbours, and intellectuals, in the exhibition. What captivates me about these paintings is how they make clear how many female nudes are made to cater to the male gaze. Neel’s paintings have more complexity. The women are reticent, but not coquettish. They hold the gaze, some of them with discernible discomfort, yet with arresting presence. They are wrinkled, puffy, old, young, plump, or gaunt. In other words, they are normal looking women freed from the desire zone for which the female nude is often designed. 

The museum’s mediation and Andrew Neel’s documentary both attempt to describe Alice Neel as an underdog in the art world, and even in life itself. I’m unsure how fitting this narrative is when dealing with a highly merited woman who surrounded herself with politicians, the intelligentsia, and influential artists. The painter’s personality, sense of humour, unconventional lifestyle, and social brassiness are given a lot of space. The technical aspects of a frenetic, varied, and over six-decades-long practice receive less attention. Neel’s increasing success, starting in the 1960s and continuing until her death, is commonly attributed (at least, partially) to the rise of Second Wave feminism. Art, as we know, is never created in a vacuum. Still, I find myself questioning whether a similar strategy would have been elected to mediate a male oeuvre. Neel herself claimed that she was “collecting souls” in her paintings. In any case, Every Person Is a New Universe offers us an insight into an artist with immense curiosity and feeling for the lives of her fellow humans. 

Alice Neel, The Spanish Family, 1943. Oil on canvas, 86,4 × 71,1 cm.