Denver Art Museum

Denver, CO



Alice Neel (1900-1984) at the Denver Art Museum


Until the day she died at the age of 84, contemporary painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) was perpetually unconventional in both her life and art. Neel painted reality with what has been called a "brutally honest" approach. People from all walks of life, including friends and family, strangers, pregnant women, flawed nudes, gay lovers, characters from her Harlem neighborhood, dying and death describe some of her subject material. She also created portraits of artists of the time including Andy Warhol, Faith Ringgold, Robert Smithson and Red Grooms. Her portraits, through a direct attempt to capture the absolute truth of an individual, are what define Neel's work most.

More than 80 paintings, watercolors and drawings that illustrate her indomitable spirit will be featured this fall at the Denver Art Museum from October 6 through December 30, 2001. The collection was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and marks a century since Neel's birth in 1900. In 1971, the first complete look at Neel's life and works was showcased by her alma mater, the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. The Denver Art Museum's own Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Dianne Vanderlip, organized the 1971 showing and proudly hosts this exhibit, the first comprehensive retrospective of Neel's work since her death.

"Alice was brilliant," says Vanderlip. "To be around her was to experience a mind and spirit that careened from piercing and meaningful observations about her friends, society, and art history to wonderfully girlish giggles about what someone was wearing or where and with whom she had dined the night before. Young as I was when I worked with her, I knew I was in the presence of one of the world's great painters and will be forever grateful for the opportunity."

Neel grew up near Philadelphia and attended college there. In 1927 she moved to New York City where she remained for the rest of her life. There she married, separated and had several extended affairs, some resulting in the birth of her children. For the next 24 years, she lived in East Harlem where she seemed to purposefully remove herself from the New York art world that was, at that time, heavily focused on abstract expressionism. A rejection of artistic trends and societal restraints would continue to be a consistent theme throughout her career.

Much of her early work was influenced by her employment through the Public Works Art Project and Works Progress Administration, two government funded art projects that were created to support professional artists who demonstrated an economic need. In order to make a living during the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, Neel met the project's requirement to portray the individuality and variety of American society through images of street scenes, social programs and political protests. For her own purposes, however, Neel remained firmly devoted to creating her own personal and autobiographical works. In all of her work, she captured the challenges of the time and her concern for the world around her.

Throughout her life, her subjects were a reflection of her personal life and often lived upstairs or down the block. Neel's spontaneous invitations to people to sit for a painting were common. In fact, in 1973, after organizing the Neel exhibition at the Moore College of Art and Design, Dianne Vanderlip (who has since been with the Denver Art Museum for the past 23 years) was beckoned by Neel for a "sitting." This portrait is included in the Denver show.

Neel became a painter at a time when few women's lives reached beyond the traditional family sphere. In her early sixties, appreciation of Neel and her artwork increased through a myriad of exhibitions and recognition by national media. Her emergence into the public eye corresponded directly with the dawning of the women's movement and the world's renewed interest in figurative painting. However, it wasn't until her seventies and eighties that Alice Neel received widespread national and international acclaim, including media recognition, commendations and invitations for important solo shows.

This exhibition was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Please see Alice Neel at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) Denver is the last stop of a national tour that has already visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachusetts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

A fully illustrated 198-page color catalogue is available in the Museum Shop. The catalogue includes images of the paintings in the exhibit, essays by art scholars regarding Neel and her techniques, comments from her subjects and a detailed chronology of Neel's life, illustrated with many personal photographs.

Read more about the Denver Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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