Get to Know Alice Neel and the Art of Magic Social Realism

Alice Neel, October 20, 1980/Photo © Frank Leonardo/Getty Images

Though it was widely accepted that the artist Alice Neel was a big fibber, her boast that she was “old as the century” was never a falsehood. Born January 28, 1900, she grew up with the twentieth century, and the trajectory of her life – her struggles, her triumphs – twinned our country’s growth though significant success eluded her until she was in her sixties. Today, her hard gems of truth and beauty continue to find new audiences, most recently via “Alice Neel, Uptown,” an exhibition of her portraits at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. I believe this is because her work, like Neel herself, was not just a product of its time but also ahead of it. At the rate that her work is proving newly relevant, she may lead the twenty-first century as well.

Neel first came on my radar last year, when I was cruising through a gallery of contemporary paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Though I was rushing, I screeched to a full stop in front of “John I. H. Baur,” her 1974 portrait of a former museum department head. With a palette of slate and ochre and a bold, almost slapdash brushstroke, she’d conveyed the man as both an institutional hack and a bemused enabler. It was a funny portrait but rueful and rich, too. I rushed on, but when I saw the Zwirner gallery was hosting a show of her work, I hightailed over not once but thrice. These paintings of her family, neighbors, friends, lovers, and political comrades in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side are not perfect. In some cases, they could ask more; they could tell more. But they grip as few twentieth-century portraits do because they are so vibrant, so cock-sure – and so defiantly resonant.

Though his book, White Girls, offers general cultural commentary, Hilton Als is employed by The New Yorker as a critic of theater, not fine arts. Yet he is the curator of this Zwirner exhibition, perhaps because Neel’s intensely democratic curiosity snags his own. (His book on the topic will be released this June.) In a catalog essay, he shares what this child of West Indian immigrants, raised in deep Brooklyn to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, initially recognized in her work:

The pictures were a collaboration, a pouring in of energy from both sides – the sitter’s and the artist’s. This was very unusual, then and now – so many artists are so terrifically invested in their “I” that they feel the world would disappear if not for it. Neel, on the other hand, believed the world existed on its own terms, and it was our duty – as citizens, as artists – to know as much about it as possible, in order to better live in it and navigate it; to exist among all the broken glass and bottle caps and boys on the street, in a kind of unsentimental wonder.

“Unsentimental,” indeed. Among her friends, Alice was called “Malice,” and though her paintings never devolve into caricatures, they certainly spare no rod. In Phoebe Hoban’s excellent biography, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, she details how, as early as art school, Neel declared herself to be the “anti-Mary Cassatt,” meaning she was not interesting in producing the fawning, fuzzy odes to domestic life that were expected of women painters of the era. Instead, she pursued – and achieved – a messy, authentic life, marked by her many sexual liaisons, her love for gritty New York City neighborhoods, her struggles with poverty and mental illness (she attempted suicide twice in her twenties), her unflagging quest for social justice, and her profoundly complicated relationship to motherhood. Neel birthed four children by three men: one daughter who died in infancy, one daughter who was raised in Cuba by her first husband, and two sons, one of whom was blinded in early childhood by malnourishment or gestational syphilis (accounts differ) and was beaten regularly by the father of her other son.

All this pain and passion threads through her paintings but does not eclipse them. Rather, she channels a fierce specificity that is, as Als suggests, as much about her subjects as it is about her. A WPA painter in the 1930s and ‘40s, she was as committed to social realism as she was to communism and antifascism, and these allegiances endured throughout her life. Although her earlier works – including a legendary depiction of Greenwich Village fixture Joe Gould sporting three enormous phalluses – also are influenced by neo-expressionism, she garnered her greatest success through more lifelike portraits, which by the end of the 1960s became nationally celebrated though figurative art generally had fallen out of fashion.

The Zwirner show, which includes paintings from the 1940s to the late 1970s, demonstrates how she connected with the cultural revolution that in some key ways had bypassed the too-rarified art world. In these portraits of people from all walks of life – Asian, Middle Eastern, African-American, and Latino people with all sorts of Kinsey scores – she lets body language do the talking. More than that, she let it do the flirting, for Neel, a known sensualist, often let her pussy do the painting; in such voluptuous shades as purple and royal blue, her appreciation of the unique allure of everyone who sat for her hardly reads as chaste. But it is not profane so much as delighted, and she compels viewers via the sheer force of her painterly charisma to admire what they may normally ignore.

In these subjects’ bodies and faces she captures every fear, every rage, every obfuscation, every sorrow. Crossed arms, twisted legs, pursed mouths, tugged ears, ram-rod postures: no tension escapes Neel, and the appeal is rooted in what survives, even thrives, despite serious hard times. In shimmering cobalts, violets, and olives, her almost edible arrays of mustard, lemon, and canary melon yellows, you see how she doesn’t just stick to the facts but glories in them: her hypnagogic shades are homages to auras, to transcendent truths rather than quotidian realities. Her subjects’ eyes are guarded, even glassy. But she renders hand choreography with such empathy – from a pinkie flick to a clenched ring finger, no gesture is unexamined, and digit size is the only disproportionate element of these lifesize renderings – that the effect is less psychological than psychotropic. It’s as if she’s built a cure into her diagnosis of the human condition, and the medicine of her gorgeous colors and jaunty angles are intended to treat the biases of her viewers rather than her subjects. Certainly it’s apparent that her people are all she cares about; for all the detail she invests in each figure, the spaces surrounding them are mostly left alone. Thus, this is not just social realism. It is “magic social realism” – a method of seeing that is as transformative as it is clear. In a moment in which we Americans are all missing each other by a mile, this model of compassionate resistance is nothing short of radical.