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Alice Neel's Paintings Meet The Moment At The Met

<em>Elenka, </em>1936
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Richard Neel and Hartley S. Neel, 1987
© The Estate of Alice Neel
Elenka, 1936

Alice Neel made it to the Met! At last. Born in 1900, she painted all her life, often in obscurity. In the 1970s, feminists discovered and lauded her. She got attention. Right now visitors are crowding a big retrospective of paintings by this remarkable artist, feminist, champion of justice, Communist, radical, mother.

And wouldn't she love it? People coming to see HER people — portraits she made when very few others were making them, in that macho Age of Abstract Expressionism. Anyway, none of those guys would have done anything like this:

When Alice Neel was young, she was beautiful. When she was 80, she was fearless. "She's stripped of pretenses," says Metropolitan Museum of Art co-curator Kelly Baum. The droops, the sags. She's showing it like it is. But her face is unwrinkled. And not haunted, interestingly enough. Not like the pictures she made of other people.

<em>Nancy and Olivia</em>, 1967
Collection of Diane and David Goldsmith / © The Estate of Alice Neel
© The Estate of Alice Neel
Nancy and Olivia, 1967

Nancy was Neel's then-daughter-in-law. Look at her eyes. Also the baby's. "That baby is alive," Baum says. "Also willful." The new mother shows, "the labor of motherhood," the work and demands of being a parent. I see desperation in the eyes of both mother and baby:

"What do I do with her?"
"What is she doing with me?"
Whoever painted a mother and child this way?

Alice Neel called her work "pictures of people. She didn't like the word "portrait." Co-curator Randall Griffey says, "she thought she was doing history," telling the story of the twentieth century through the people she painted. The title of this Met show is "Alice Neel: People Come First." In a 1979 NPR interview she talked about why. You'll get a real sense of her quirky chattiness from this clip.

Life was tough for Alice Neel. The death of two of her children. A mental breakdown. Bad men (lots of men) coming and going. And life was tough for most of the people she painted. Nobody smiles. Nobody has much money. They're parents, they're pregnant, even the children aren't relaxed.

<em>Two Girls, Spanish Harlem</em>, 1959
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Barbara Lee / © The Estate of Alice Neel
© The Estate of Alice Neel
Two Girls, Spanish Harlem, 1959

"Neel treats her child sitters with as much respect and investment as her adult sitters," says curator Kelly Baum. "They're not one-dimensional little people." There's nothing sentimental in this view of Carmen and Antonia Encarnacion — girls in Neel's neighborhood in Spanish Harlem. She paints the sometime uneasiness of childhood. They're inquisitive but not jolly. Not idealized. She treats them as humans.

"I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being" Neel told the Communist Party's Daily Worker newspaper. "To be human," says curator Randall Griffey, "was to be afflicted in some way, whether it's physical, emotional, familial." She believed life was hard. And she showed that.

<em>Georgie Arce No. 2</em>, 1955
Collection of Lonti Ebers / © The Estate of Alice Neel
© The Estate of Alice Neel
Georgie Arce No. 2, 1955

Neel painted Georgie often, over time. He's angelic sometimes. Here, he holds a knife. It's rubber, a toy. But at some point he'd held it to her throat ... playfully?

In painting people Neel was also painting New York City, and its changes. She spent most of her 84 years there (she died in 1984). Over the years, on canvas, her people reflect the city's — and the country's — shifts.

In 1965, as a U.S. bombing campaign began thundering over Vietnam, Alice Neel spotted this man on a New York street.

<em>Black Draftee (James Hunter)</em>, 1965
COMMA Foundation, Belgium / © The Estate of Alice Neel
© The Estate of Alice Neel
Black Draftee (James Hunter), 1965

She stopped him, asked if she could paint his picture. They agreed there would be two sittings. While Mr. Hunter posed, he told Neel he'd been drafted, and was waiting to go to Vietnam. They worked for several hours. Neel got this much done that day. But never saw Hunter again. No one knows why, and the painting was never completed. Kelly Baum says it was "left unfinished by circumstance," not by choice. As time passed Neel decided it was complete, and put it in a big exhibition of her work at the Whitney Museum. The circumstance, and the decision, changed Neel's style. She began to do unfinished, under-painted works. "Clearly she learned something about the power of an unfinished style."

But what of James Hunter? He must have gotten called up. Was he killed in Vietnam? Did he come home, move out of the city, forget about the painting? Efforts to find him failed. His name isn't engraved on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Curator Randall Griffey sees the mystery in the piece itself. "You do have the feeling of him evaporating into thin air." Unfinished, James Hunter "is in the process of vanishing."

The story, the painting, are so powerful. And once seen, Alice Neel's portrait fixes Hunter in the mind's eye forever.

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.