After a lovely outdoor Mother’s Day brunch with my daughter and husband, we went up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the much anticipated Alice Neel show, People Come First. If you follow my blog, you know I’m a huge fan of Neel, and it was the first set of tickets I bought for my NYC trip. Even with timed entry, once in the museum, we waited 45 minutes to get into the show. They did a nice job making sure people in line were spaced appropriately. The wait didn’t matter much, as there is no better place to stand in line than the extraordinary Met 5th, with my daughter who we had not seen in 18 months and our dearest friend Monica. It was absolutely thrilling to be at an art show. At an art show in New York. At an art show by an artist who is New York.
“Alice Neel: People Come First presents Alice Neel (1900-1984) as one of the twentieth century’s most radical artists, a champion of social justice whose long-standing commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art. “For me, people come first,”Neel declared in 1950. “I have tried to assert the dignity of eternal importance of the human being.” In keeping with the ethical foundations of humanism, Neel dedicated herself to painting what she called “pictures of people.” The artist focused especially on individuals who had experienced injustice as a result of sexism, racism, and capitalism as well as those who combatted it. Democratic and inclusive, Neel painted people from many different backgrounds and walks of life.
New York was Neel’s greatest muse and the stage for a human drama she began capturing in the early 1930s. Neel’s life and art were inflected by the tumultuous events of the twentieth century, including the Great Depression, the rise of Communism, and the feminist and civil rights movements. For this reason, she described her work as a kind of history painting. Mindful of the formal and sensuous possibilities of paint, Neel applied her incisive eye to all her subjects, whether people, urban landscapes, or still life’s. Her riveting portrayals of life in New York, whose gritty beauty persists even in precarious times, make Neel’s art even more relevant in 2021.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
I watched the show’s live virtual opening back in March, and have scoured the exhibition catalogue, which I had pre-ordered, but nothing compares to seeing art in person. I’ve selected a few images to share of the vast exhibition. but photos do not do the paintings justice. I feel extremely fortunate to have seen “People Come First” in person.
“In 1965, the year President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to significantly increase ground forces in South Vietnam, Neel met James Hunter by chance and asked him to sit for a painting. The young man had just been drafted and was scheduled to leave within a week. Following her usual practice, Neel started by outlining the body directly on the canvas and then filling in part of the head and hands. When Hunter failed to return for their second sitting, Neel declared the work complete, despite its unfinished state, signed it on the back, and exhibited it nine years later in her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
“From the very beginning, Neel’s practice was historically grounded and culturally engaged — as she once put it, “I believe in art as history. The swirl of the era is what you’re in and what you paint.” This section places select painting by Neel in dialogue with a group of works drawn from the Met Collection, which she visited regularly. Neel was generally disinclined to admit to artistic influence, and critics tended to describe her commitment to representation, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, as anomalous, but her oeuvre nevertheless reveals important connections to other artists.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Nancy and Olivia was positioned next to Vincent van Gogh’s Madame Roulin and Her Baby, 1888.
Thanksgiving was positioned next to Chaim Soutine’s Still Life with Rayfish, 1924.
Dominican Boys on 108th Street was positioned next to Helen Levitt’s New York, ca. 1939, printed 1960s.
The pairings were absolutely wonderful.
I have seen Self-Portrait, 1980 many times at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and it remains among my favorite of Neel’s work. “It was not until Neel was at the height of her critical fame that she produced her first — and, as it turns out, only — self-portrait in which she is the principal subject.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The exhibition runs until August 1st.