Whitney Museum of American Art

New York, NY




The Art of Alice Neel


Alice Neel (1900-1984), whose unflinching paintings of friends, lovers, family, neighbors, and fellow artists are among the most powerful portraits of the twentieth century, will be the subject of a landmark retrospective exhibition. Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to celebrate the centennial of the artist's birth, "The Art of Alice Neel" is the first full-scale reappraisal of Neel's work since her death in 1984. "The Art of Alice Neel" debuts at the Whitney Museum of American Art from June 29 to September 17, 2000, before traveling to the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy (Andover, Massachusetts), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis).

"This is the first-ever exhibition to present Alice Neel's work in its full complexity," said Ann Temkin, The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and organizer of "The Art of Alice Neel." "The exhibition will reveal a remarkable range of subjects and evolution of style over the course of six decades. (left: Dead Father, 1946, oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 28 inches, Private collection)

The exhibition features 75 paintings and watercolors, many never before shown in any museum. Among the works on view, covering a period of more than 50 years, are portraits of Neel's friends and neighbors in Greenwich Village, Spanish Harlem, and the Upper West Side, images that not only capture the essence of her sitters but chronicle an artist's life in New York City. Her paintings, unforgiving yet tender, possess a singular intensity and psychological depth.

Alice Neel was born in 1900 in a small town outside Philadelphia. In 1921, she enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design). In 1925, Neel married the Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez; the couple lived in Havana, where Neel gave birth to their first daughter, Santillana, who died of diphtheria one year later. Neel and Enriquez moved to New York in 1927, where she bore her second child, Isabetta. The next few years brought a series of hardships, including the end of her marriage, separation from her daughter, a nervous breakdown, a suicide attempt, and the destruction of her work by a jealous lover. In 1938, Neel moved uptown to Spanish Harlem, where she raised two sons--Richard, born in 1939, and Hartley, born in 1941--and where she lived and worked for the next 20 years.

Details of Neel's early years in Cuba and New York City have, until now, remained obscure. Employed by the W.P.A. during the Great Depression, Neel painted scenes of the city streets, including the impoverished and the homeless. Her paintings of the 1930s also initiated a lifelong exploration of portraiture, the form for which she is best known. Her evolution over the next five decades reflects a commitment to depict the world with compassion, acuity, and freedom. Among the highlights of "The Art of Alice Neel" is the nude portrait of Isabetta (1934), in which the artist portrays her young daughter in an assertive pose that contrasts strikingly with 19th-century depictions of childhood innocence. Neel's brave, harrowing honesty is seen in Last Sickness (1953), which captures the fear and discomfort of the artist's mother in the final months of her life. (left: Isabetta, 1934, oil on canvas, 43 x 25 1/4 inches, Collection of Johnathan and MonikaBrand, Portland, OR)

Neel's revelatory paintings from the decades between 1930 and 1960 shed new light on the body of work for which she is most famous: the portraits created in the last two decades of her life. Many of these portraits document the vibrant art world of which she suddenly found herself a celebrated member. She painted the poets, artists, performers and critics she knew, including Frank O'Hara, Robert Smithson, Faith Ringgold, Marisol, Jackie Curtis, and Meyer Schapiro, as well as her famous and haunting portrait of Andy Warhol (1970), whom she depicted shirtless, exposing the scars from the attempt made on his life. Neel's keen observation and sense of the uncanny are equally powerful in her still lifes and interiors, such as the unexpected image of a capon defrosting in the sink (Thanksgiving, 1965).

In the 1970s, Neel became a celebrity, an enormously popular public speaker, and appeared twice on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Her paintings continued to present a disconcerting blend of intimacy and monumentality. Referring to her portraits, she paraphrased Gogol, and called herself "a collector of souls." A few months before her death in 1984, while discussing her portraits with Henry Geldzahler in Interview, Neel responded to the description of her as a "translator" by saying, "That's what I really am, yes. A sympathetic, or sometimes not so sympathetic translator. (left: Annie Sprinkle, 1982, oil on canvas, 60 x 44 inches, Estate of Alice Neel)

Whitney Museum Director Maxwell L. Anderson noted, "The Whitney Museum is proud to have been the first institution to honor Alice Neel with a retrospective of her work in 1974. Her emotionally charged portraits claim a unique place in the history of American portraiture, and we are honored to be part of this tour." Neel was featured in the Whitney's 1972 "Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Painting," and her work was also included in such Whitney exhibitions as "Decade in Review: Selections from the 70s in 1979;" "American Painting of the 60s and 70s--The Real, The Ideal, The Fantastic: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art" in 1980; "Portraits: On a Human Scale" in 1983; "Figurative Works from the Permanent Collection" in 1992; and, more recently, "Views from Abroad: European Perspectives on American Art" in 1997 and in The American Century.

"Recent years have seen the remarkable resurgence of portraiture as a vital field for new artists working in a variety of mediums, and as a compelling subject for exhibitions, such as the recent retrospectives of Ingres and Daumier," added Anne dHarnoncourt, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "This centenary salute to Alice Neel marks a particularly opportune moment for the first full examination of an artist who transformed the contemporary portrait and, in doing so, influenced succeeding generations.

"The Art of Alice Neel" is organized and installed by Ann Temkin, The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition is coordinated for the Whitney Museum of American Art by Barbara Haskell, Curator of Pre-War American Art. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Ms. Temkin; Susan Rosenberg, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Richard Flood, Chief Curator, Walker Art Center. Temkin discusses interconnections between Neel's art and life; Rosenberg explores Neel's artistic roots in the 1930s; and Flood focuses on the art-world portraits of the 1960s and 1970s. The catalogue, richly illustrated with many previously unpublished photographs, includes entries on each work, reminiscences by Neel's portrait subjects, and the first detailed chronology of Neel's life.

The Whitney Museum of American Art presentation is made possible by generous gifts from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Mrs. Edwin A. Malloy, Hartley S. Neel, Richard Neel, and an anonymous donor.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Alice Neel, 30-minute 1975 Alice Neel interview from the Video Data Bank, a resource for videotapes by and about contemporary artists is a video available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.
Alice Neel, 1900-1984. An appreciative look back at the formidable, yet endearirig, Alice Neel. This video features an interview with Neel conducted shortly before her death, and includes footage of two exhibitions of her work at the Robert Miller Gallery. 1990, 28 minutes. VHS,
Alice Neel, (NR, USA, 86 mins.). A portraitist's grandson creates her portrait on film in a fascinating documentary. The biography of this influential, emotionally troubled painter could have been titled "Form Follows Function" since it achieves the documentary format's basic goal of illuminating history while also demonstrating through filmmaking choices, how an artist's style reveals his or her personality. Cape Cod Museum of Art showed this film in January, 2008. (9/5/08 note: Google Video contains a 3-minute trailer on the documentary)
Alice Neel: Collector of Souls 28 minute / 1977 / CINE - "Cringing at the term 'portrait painter,' Alice Neel preferred to refer to herself as a "collector of souls." Combining bold brushstrokes, vibrant colors and sharply contrasting highlights and shadows, Neel deftly captured the human psyche on canvas. The film uses a variety of techniques to reveal the character of the ebullient Neel."

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/2/11

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