"Linda Nochlin and Daisy" by US painter Alice Neel (Photo by Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images)

Unwavering commitment

The life and work of Alice Neel

Artillery Row

“In politics as in life, I have always loved the losers, the outsiders. I didn’t like the smell of success’ were the words of Alice Neel not long before her death in 1984. Known for her colourful and figurative portraits, Neel’s career — spanning seven decades — reflected colossal societal change throughout the 20th century. Ironically, for an artist with such irreverence towards success, she became one of the most celebrated American painters.

Only in her 70s did Neel gain widespread recognition

Currently on display at the Centre Pompidou are 75 paintings and drawings in the highly anticipated retrospective Alice Neel: Un Regard Engagé. Curated by Angela Lampe, the show captures Neel’s determination, her fighting spirit and unshakeable desire to give recognition to the most downtrodden in society. An advocate of left-wing politics and affiliated with the Communist movement during the Depression era, Neel didn’t concern herself with artistic trends. Rather than aligning with abstraction during the emergence of the fashionable Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1940s and 1950s, she maintained an allegiance to figurative painting. 

Neel’s indifference to the mainstream is arguably why she remained a relatively obscure figure at the start of her career. Only in her 70s did she gain widespread recognition. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award. Beyond stylistic differences, her political engagement with radical politics, in particular during McCarthyism, certainly curtailed her success — not to mention the fact that she was an outspoken woman artist in a male-dominated sphere. “She was very honest and open to the degree that it pissed off a lot of people in the artworld,” reminisces the artist Barkley L. Hendricks. “But she was right.” 

Born in Pennsylvania in 1900, Neel was the fourth of five children in a modestly wealthy household. As a girl raised at the start of the 20th century, with all its gendered constraints and conventions, her aspirations to become an artist were not taken seriously. She would later remark: “The minute I sat in front of a canvas I was happy. Because it was a world, and I could do what I liked in it.” Later, she would work as a secretary by day to support her family. 

By evening she would attend classes at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, eventually earning a scholarship to study at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. There, she met the Cuban Carlos Enríquez, whom she married. The couple moved to Havana, where she produced paintings such as Beggars (1926), an early work that reveals a preoccupation with the working-classes and a painterly style characterised by loose brushwork. Later, portraits such as The Spanish Family (1943) or Rita and Hubert (1954) would adopt her signature frontal composition with the application of vivid blocks of colour and black outlines. 

As the Pompidou exhibition reveals — with its central wall dedicated to a timeline of her life — her marriage to Enríquez marked the beginning of a tragic chapter. Her first child, Santillana died of diphtheria as an infant, and their second daughter, Isabella, was taken to Paris in the early 1930s with Enríquez, following the breakdown of their marriage. The separation contributed to Neel’s nervous collapse and suicide attempt that resulted in her stay at a psychiatric ward for almost a year.

Disrupting linear chronology reflects the radicality of the artist herself

In the 1960s and 1970s, Neel mixed with New York’s intellectual and bohemian artistic communities, painting influential figures such as Pop artist Andy Warhol, the MoMA curator and critic Frank O’Hara as well as New York’s then-mayor Ed Koch. Her well-known portrait of Warhol from 1970 reveals the artist’s surgical scars after an assassination attempt by Valeria Solanas in June 1968. Neel had only recently begun to gain recognition around the time that she painted Warhol, who was not only the most famous artist in America, but known for promoting talent. The fact that Warhol agreed to sit for Neel — in such an intimate setting — was a clear sign of his appreciation for her originality and desire to further her career. 

The result of the collaboration is a radical departure from Warhol’s public persona. His trademark iconic blonde wig, deadpan expression and cool detachment are deemphasised. Instead Neel offers a genuine portrayal of the artist, one in which his tense pose, clasped hands and closed eyes convey a frailty and vulnerability the public had scarcely seen in connection to Warhol. 

Despite being embraced by the artistic mainstream, Neel maintained her connections to radical politics and social activism, which gained traction with the Women’s Liberation Movement. In an indication of her unwavering lifelong commitment to her political values, Neel once exclaimed with exasperation: “I don’t give a damn. I was women’s lib before there was women’s lib.”

Her portrait Marxist Girl, Irene Peslikis (1972) reveals her friendship with fellow artist Irene Peslikis, a member of the left-wing, radical feminist group Redstockings and a founder of Women and Art Quarterly. Neel’s portrait of Peslikis displays a self-possessing woman sprawled in an armchair. Her limbs spread outwards with ease, confidence and irreverence for “ladylike” decorum. The conspicuous lack of bra and hair on her armpits shatters expectations of traditional femininity. Neel’s female sitters often stare calmly at the viewer, echoing Denise Bauer’s observation that her female nudes “reverse, contradict, and satirize this tradition most basically by reinterpreting the female nude as conscious and aware of the male gaze”.

What the Centre Pompidou exhibition successfully emphasises is the diversity and breadth of Neel’s practice, which maintained an unwavering politicised gaze and an intense psychological scrutiny of her subjects. Behind each of Neel’s portraits is a shared intimacy and understanding between artist and sitter, a result of her compassion and delicate eye that is translated onto canvas. “If I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist” she once remarked.

Although chaotic at times, the quasi open-plan layout of the show challenges conventional exhibiting practices. Structured thematically, around notions of class and gender struggle, there is no set path for the visitor to take. This curatorial decision, which disrupts linear chronology, reflects the radicality and original approach of the artist herself, although it may also confuse those who are unfamiliar with her practice. Rather than comprehending Neel’s practice from start to finish, we are immediately encouraged to appreciate the immensity of her oeuvre. Visually encapsulating this notion, the entrance (and exit) of the exhibition addresses her entire lifespan and personal evolution by displaying together a series of photographs of the artist aged 29 in 1929, and a photographic portrait of the artist by Robert Mapplethorpe taken in 1984 — the year she died. The resounding message is that we cannot (and should not) separate Neel’s artistic production from her personality, nor her courageous and compassionate vision.

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