By now, most major publications, including this one, have reviewed Alice Neel: People Come First at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a large show, exploring the artist’s entire career, from the 1930s cityscapes and early portraits to her last paintings of activists and art critics.
Many of these paintings are familiar: The doe-eyed children on a stoop in Spanish Harlem; the women — seated in chairs or reclining, holding children, pregnant, or nude; the men, sometimes naked, crumpled, imposing, vulnerable, but mostly just human. Alice Neel is an artist, like Vincent van Gogh, whose work refuses to settle. One must confront these pictures again and again. The paintings unfurl and sting with their electric outlines of purple or blue, their daring contours, and the fierce passages of raw canvas into radiant color. No one paints hands like Alice Neel, who lived from 1900 to 1984. Even Egon Schiele’s bony, animated appendages lose surety alongside the draping and nervous yearning of Neel’s elongated fingers.
Trying to consume an artist’s life’s work while strolling through an exhibition is daunting. If you’re lucky, you might leave with one painting firmly planted. For me, Alice Neel: People Come First yielded a work I had never seen and that I will never unsee: “Peggy” (1949). It is toward the end, in a section labeled “The Human Comedy,” near a portrait of Andy Warhol bandaged after being shot, a portrait of Alice’s dying mother, and a drawing of Che Guevara after his execution in Bolivia.
“Peggy” is a quintessential Alice Neel treatment of a subject, except that it is horizontal. Peggy is perhaps in her 30s. She reclines back into a pillow. The painting is cropped just beneath her breasts. She wears a lime-green shirt with painterly, modulated color that emerges from a deep blue background. Although her eyes are open, they do not seem to look at anything, but rather turn inward to the pain defined by her downcast mouth, gnarled hands, and bruised face.
This is a rendering of someone lost in her own circuitry of despair. It is a portrait of a woman who has been beaten by her husband. Neel twists the act of portraiture, often an ego-induced exchange of caresses, into a kind of forensic evidence. She paints the bruises around Peggy’s right eye near a cultivated curl of hair that loops down her forehead, cruelly echoing the shapes of the contusions. The determination to look pretty (to please), as evidenced by the curls, comes in contact with the assault in a haltingly poetic summation of the cycle of hope and trauma in abusive relationships. If this weren’t enough, one finger on her right hand tremulously touches a wound, reactivating the memory.
Peggy’s left eye has a dark slash under it and her left hand is strangely contorted, a field of tangled, heavy lines. Her exaggeratedly long, skinny arms form two sharp triangles. The right arm slopes downward as it rests on a table, with a still life of three apples in a bowl in the background, painted with the same reds and greens as her bruising. Her other arm jets upward, against a blue, striped background. With limbs askew, she looks broken. She is painted flat to the foreground, like a pinned butterfly. There is no room to visually exit the painting. It would make sense if Neel used the act of the portrait to help Peggy recover a sense of strength by showing her resolve. But the portrait does not do that. Neel treats Peggy like a well-known fact, unglazed by hints of internal strength. Peggy is one person in a sad situation, as well as a representative of a societal condition.
One could easily miss this painting amid the 100 canvases and drawings. No reviews have mentioned it. The year it was painted, Neel was living in Spanish Harlem with her two small boys, Richard and Hartley, and her partner, the photographer and filmmaker Sam Brody. Her living room at 21 E. 108th Street would be the site of 20 years of portraits, including “Peggy.” In 1943, Neel lost her source of income from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, and went on public assistance. She had not exhibited in five years. Peggy was Alice Neel’s neighbor. According to Denise Bauer in an essay, “Alice Neel’s Feminist and Leftist Portraits of Women” (Feminist Studies, Summer 2002), “Alice frequently told the story that Peggy was found dead in her bed one morning after taking an overdose of sleeping pills; her drunken husband had slept beside her dead body all night.”
“Peggy” is owned by a private collector, James Kenyon, a real-estate developer in Los Angeles, which may account for its obscurity. Little has been written about this painting and the essays in the excellent exhibition catalogue do not mention it. Alice Neel said, in a video interview, “One of the reasons I paint is to catch life as it goes by, hot off the griddle.” She made the distinction between a “portrait” and a “picture of a person,” opting for the latter to describe her work. The term “portrait” feels closed, implying an object or product. It also carries a fraught history of propaganda as it spun the assets of emperors, gods, kings, or clerics.
A “picture of a person” suggests the two-part seesaw of painter and subject. For Neel, the human condition was as much about struggle as it was a pantomime of happiness. She was a Marxist her entire life, participating in study groups, marches, and political gatherings that championed the poor and working classes. The exhibition catalogue emphasizes that her work needs to be seen within this context. It not only informs but deepens Neel’s consistent focus on underdogs, non-conformists, and under-represented roles, such as motherhood. For Neel, the grit of political, emotional, or physical struggle, and the scars it leaves, were the only possible subjects for a picture. Even the huge bellies of her naked pregnant women are filled with equal measures of promise and foreboding.
“Painting,” Neel said, “keeps me alive.” Perhaps her reasons for painting Peggy were twofold: If painting kept Neel alive, she was embracing Peggy in the magic of this survival act, letting her know indirectly that there are ways to hang on. Also, by sitting in consort with Peggy and her lingering pain, rather than placating it with kind words, Neel came as close as possible to intimacy and empathy. Making a portrait, for Neel, was thus an exchange of identification, a noting, a “pouring in of energy from both sides,” according to the critic Hilton Als, who curated a show of her work at David Zwirner Gallery in 2017. In a recorded conversation with Met exhibition curator Kelly Baum, Als said, “I love her because she doesn’t cheapen human experience with sentiment.” He added that while he was installing the show at David Zwirner, he needed to periodically step out of the room because of the emotional intensity of the work.
Another painting, “Thanksgiving” (1965), might parallel Neel’s approach to Peggy. We don’t see a gorgeously plated roasted bird on a set table, we see a raw carcass in a kitchen sink. Any idealized veneer has been plucked, subverted, and exchanged for truth.
Alice Neel: People Come First continues through August 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey.