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Sam Brody, Portrait of Alice Neel © Estate of Sam Brody

by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

It is a great pleasure to introduce our special issue devoted to American artist Alice Neel (1900-1984). I want to thank Jeremy Lewison, who first told me about the exhibition Alice Neel: Painted Truths, which he co-curated (with Barry Walker) for the Musem of Fine Arts in Houston (where it will be on view from March 21 - June 13, 2010; it will travel thereafter to the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Moderna Museet in Malmö), when we met last year in London. Sometime before I met Jeremy I had seen the most incredible show of Neel’s work at Victoria Miro Gallery in London. I did not know Jeremy then and that he had organized the show at Miro. What was extraordinary about it were the command and presence of the paintings. Being portraits, the images seemed to look right into your eyes. But it was mostly the paint, and how this paint became form, that touched a nerve within me. No matter how distorted the form, the primacy of the human body is present in a Neel portrait. 

 In 1979 I went to a lecture at the graduate school I was attending given by Alice Neel about her work. I remember not only the power of her work but the passionate way she spoke about her life as an artist. She must have been about 78 or 79 when she gave this talk, and she made quite an impression on me as a young artist. What I remember is her passion for her life, her spirit and, of course, the story of her life as a painter. 

 I want to thank Michael Klein, who instigated this issue, and Michael, Jeremy, and Stuart Horodener for their richly illuminating and personal reflections on Ms. Neel’s work. I know she would have liked this portrait of herself.

All my best,



Sam Brody, Portrait of Alice Neel
© Estate of Sam Brody

Alice Neel Now

by Jeremy Lewison

In today’s contemporary art world, young curators who have been schooled in the various curatorial courses throughout the world privilege the broadly conceptual. These courses tend to place emphasis on critical theory and cultural studies, which inevitably favour the discussion of works of art that prefer text to image, discourse to poetry, and fact to imagination. Many of their graduates have scant knowledge of art prior to 1980 and little interest in art of previous centuries and as a result are ill equipped to look at, let alone judge, painting. And since many art students are schooled in the same way it is no surprise that there is a dearth of thoughtful painters among young art school graduates who themselves gravitate towards film, photography, installation or conceptual art.

In her lifetime Alice Neel faced similar difficulties. Her art, which was more or less realist, came to maturity in the ascendant period of Abstract Expressionism and although there was a realist alternative she was more or less excluded from it. The major critics of the day paid her little attention, preferring Philip Pearlstein, Larry Rivers, Richard Diebenkorn and others. To them her works must have seemed like a throwback to the nineteenth century rather than an expression of the contemporary every bit as vivid as the avant-garde. She was not included in the major exhibitions of realist art that took place in the 1960s in, among other places, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in spite of her efforts at ingratiating herself with two of the major curators of the time, Frank O’Hara and Henry Geldzahler, by painting their portraits. And when Abstract Expressionism was superseded by Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art she remained out of synch. The feminist movement flexed its muscles and embraced Neel as a forerunner, but Feminist artists tended to work in other idioms: performance, photography, video and conceptually based practices since painting seemed irrevocably associated with the macho posturing of the Abstract Expressionists and then the Minimalists.

Notwithstanding a revival of interest in painting in the late 1990s, it is still pretty much a marginal activity in terms of museum and critical patronage. High prices paid at auction for such artists as Gerhard Richter and Peter Doig should not be taken as a sign that painting is in favour with those who promote art through magazines, exhibitions and museum collecting. But in the public mind painting endures and young artists setting out to be painters now need more than ever to see how artists of earlier generations successfully resisted the status quo and remained outside what evolved into an academic style, for this is what much of the conceptual, film and photographic work has become; merely another academy.


From Left: 

Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth. © Estate of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel, Carmen and Judy, 1972. Collection: Oklahoma City Museum of Art. © Estate of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel, Don Perlis and Jonathan, 1984. Collection: Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Estate of Alice Neel.

For such painters as Doig, Marlene Dumas, John Currin and even such sculptors as Robert Gober, to name but a few, Alice Neel provided a precedent, an outlook on the world and on art that provided some kind of model. Highly personal, engaged with humanity, uninvolved with intellectual debate but nonetheless cognisant of the latest movements, it was a highly personal take on life mediated through paint. Neel keenly observed the strengths, weakness and foibles of individuals she encountered, and had an eye for the extraordinary in the ordinary, the whimsical and the eccentric, the cruel and the kind. There was no showing off; just honesty, commitment and psychological acuity. There was also a facility with paint itself, of drawing and colouring with it, of using it as matter itself as well as descriptively, all of which strikes such a strong chord with painters today. The faces she depicted reveal painterly passages that could be details from a Cézanne landscape with patches of non naturalistic colour laid side by side, merging to form the most extraordinary areas of light and shade and sculptural modelling. She painted thick and thin, dry and wet, and in the later stages of her career ignored any conventions of finish, rather deciding for herself when a work was complete enough. At times she felt that a painting had reached a point where to go further would spoil it and in some instances painted a second version. Ultimately what mattered to Neel was to keep the painting fresh and alive.

Neel demonstrates to painters today that subject painting retains its power to move and to engage the viewer; that a great work of art need not be capable of literary description or be underpinned by conceptual argument, nor need it rely on mechanical aids to achieve a degree of realism. Her subjects, particularly in the last twenty years of her life, appear to be continuously alive, trapped in the present as though engaging directly with the viewer. Few painters have had her ability to create a painting that seems constantly to be in formation, to exist in the present for each and every viewer. Each sitter is not only a witness to his or her time but also a living memory of the past. Most portraits, like most photographs, are emblematic of death – they document an irrecoverable past. Only the great portraitists, like Rembrandt, are able to keep their subjects alive. His moving late self-portrait in Kenwood testifies to his ability to remain forever engaged with the viewer who, in the portrait’s presence, feels he is in dialogue with the painter. In such instances the past is no barrier, for time is continuous.

In our present era portraiture has been relegated to a minor art. The portrait survives largely in the wooden paintings commissioned by academic colleges or national portrait galleries from second rate artists who have facility but little flair or psychological understanding or vision. Photography has replaced painting as the means of choice for portraiture but photography is concerned with capturing the moment whereas painting is about the synthesis of time. Moreover photography, with its smooth reflective surface, its images, printed by a chemical reaction or digitally manipulated having no material depth, is entirely different from a painted portrait. Neel’s work is an assimilation of many different moments and moods, a distillation of many hours of scrutiny of the subject that concludes in a single summarising image where the impressions captured over time are related not simply through an image but through the material quality of paint, the flicks of the wrist and the movements of an arm, paint laid on hastily and contours outlined slowly. Neel’s art displays a range of marks made in the service of communicating an image rather than at the behest of any conceptual programme, for Neel is a natural painter and it is her unselfconscious, apparently simple approach to painting that we should revere.

To look at Neel’s work now is to see a review of the twentieth century in New York. She represents changes in fashion and social mores, racial and gender issues, class differential, political agendas, feminist advances; in short her work effortlessly reflects a century of change as much as that of any photographer from the same era. The abandonment of the modernist project has allowed room for multiple voices to be heard and one that needs to be heard now is Alice Neel’s.



Jeremy Lewison is an independent curator and advises the Estate of Alice Neel and the Kadist Foundation. He was formerly Director of Collections at Tate.

Alice Neel, Nancy and the Twins, 1971. Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Estate of Alice Neel.

Go Ask Alice

by Stuart Horodner

No one paints a portrait like Alice Neel.
 Sharing sympathies with poet Allen Ginsberg, whose motto was "first thought, best thought," she seems to understand immediately where to locate her subjects on the canvas. Neel uses direct outlines of blue or black to position them in space, seated on chairs or couches or beds, or standing up at attention. Then she proceeds to slowly fill them in with broad passages of color that establish the structure and surface of their bodies and clothes. During the portrait-making process, Neel’s precise looking becomes the various strokes and dabs of the brush that accumulate until the work is complete. A Neel portrait is more of a possessing than a picturing; they combine a kind of coloring book certainty with a hint of caricature.

No matter their year of completion, her paintings operate in a constant now, as if she just walked away from them to answer the phone. She transforms oil paint into skin, hair, cloth, fur, plaid, wood and air with great economy and intelligence. Her works are dense with telling details and yet maintain an extreme openness. Several years ago, during a conversation with me in her graduate school studio at Columbia University, the painter Dana Schutz said that she loved Neel’s explanation of why she had left the shoulder out of one particular portrait. She said,  “it wasn’t necessary.” One of Neel’s great gifts to younger artists is an “it’s OK if I say so” attitude that has implications for both philosophy and plasticity, the why and how of creative activity.

Alice Neel paints family members, neighbors, patrons, businessmen, anarchists, artists, writers, lovers, and children. She is adept at representing youth and age, poverty and wealth, notoriety and anonymity.  Her subjects are white and black and brown and yellow. She was painting diversity as the context of her brave life way before political correctness and Benetton ad campaigns.

If you know something about the lives of the figures in a Neel painting, this adds another layer to viewing them. But it is not necessary. We see her people every day. They are our parents and co-workers and friends. They are us. Several of my favorites include:

Frank O'Hara, with his boxer's nose and mouth filled with teeth that Neel said looked like tombstones.

Andy Warhol (after being shot by Valerie Solanis), with his stomach stitched up like Frankenstein’s monster and his eyelids shut. His head and shoulders are surrounded by just enough powder blue to suggest a fragile angel in waiting. 

John Perreault as a hairy horizontal odalisque with his dreamy eyes and droopy cock and balls.

Any one of her pregnant nudes with their swollen nipples, blue veins, and weighted bellies. No other artist has consistently examined the complex physical and emotional reality of pregnancy with such clarity and candor.

The Soyer Brothers, Raphael and Moses, sitting near each other wearing suits that hang loosely on their aging bodies. They remind me of my own grandfather, lost in thought with a bent forefinger hiding his closed mouth.

The occasional still life: a Medusa-like philodendron plant near a window, and a Thanksgiving turkey in the kitchen sink.

And Neel’s “just the facts ma’am” nude self portrait at age 80, with her piercing gaze, cascading flesh, and kinetic right foot. It is a tour de force that argues for bravery and acceptance in art and life.

Painter Lucien Freud once remarked, "You can use your intent to make anything seem like anything. Picasso's a master at being able to make a face feel like a foot." Alice Neel uses her intent (and observational acumen, unabashed curiosity, and significant ego) to preserve certain souls she encountered so that we may better understand the parameters of human dignity.



Stuart Horodner is the Artistic Director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.


From Left: 

Alice Neel, Max White, 1961. Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Estate of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel, Frank O´Hara, No. 2, 1960. Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Estate of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel, Sam, 1958. Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Estate of Alice Neel.

That's Ms. Neel

by Michael Klein

In the mid 70s when I was studying art history at NYU and in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, I had long hair, a moustache, and was deeply earnest. I worked various jobs to earn money: as a bookstore clerk at Barnes and Noble—long before it became a chain--and a short order cook at an Upper Eastside bar. I also worked weekends giving tours for the Whitney’s Education Dept. (I had challenged myself to get over a case of adolescent shyness that clung to me and speaking to the public twice on Saturdays and twice on Sundays was a sure fire cure!)

The two shows I was responsible for at the Whitney were a show organized by the English critic Lawrence Alloway on American Pop Art, and an Alice Neel retrospective of some 80 paintings. Our study group had organized another smaller show that was on then too: Frank O’Hara: A Poet Among Painters.

Looking back now, I can see that it would have made perfect sense for me to call Ms. Neel at the time to ask her questions about the works in the show. I could have asked her about her life; her thoughts about this, her first major museum show; gotten a few direct quotes from her or an anecdote or two, but I was naïve and pretty inexperienced in the workings of the art world and the ease with which artists are happy to talk about their work if asked. All I knew was that I could speak about her works and describe their styles, interpret what I had read, and lead the visitors through the show pointing out aspects of her paintings. Little did I know that behind each face was a story, that each of these portrayals of friends and colleagues was a unique statement in the style of painting and also unique to a woman who had no affiliation with any particular school, just to the life and artistic energy of New York.  She was part of that “other New York School of Painting” that included artists working outside the mainstream of social realism or abstract art and mid-century Abstract Expressionism. She, and a vast array of painters from Beauford Delaney, John Koch and Jacob Lawrence to Alex Katz and even Grace Hartigan, saw life in the world around them: the myriad of people and non-stop street life of New York City. Neel and her compatriots wanted to bring that subject matter into the studio, reflect on its character and then turn it into the expressive images of their respective canvases.

While life on the street was one of Neel’s themes, she also painted many an interior scene using her studio or home as the subject matter, but Neel’s portraits, in particular her portrayals of children, are among her strongest works. She focused on kids: the children of friends, the children of neighbors, children who were open to posing and allowing the painter to expose their tender emotions and fragile feelings. These are not the kids whose families pay to have portraits made for future generations to know their names, or their stations in life. They are the stoop sitters and hopscotch players that populate the side streets of Manhattan on a warm summer day. They are the kids of working class parents or poor families. Various biographical accounts suggest that Neel was a thinker, her political ideals formed by poverty and the general economic depression of the 30s and pre-war days in New York, and no doubt these kids were in many cases the innocent victims of the world in which they were born, a world mired in a global economic down turn and growing nationalism and racism.

Among the paintings of the Depression era, along with her portraits, are sooty cityscapes of upper Westside building facades and fire-escapes; snowy dark alleyways;  brooding  still lives of fruit, table tops and cheap cut crystal. And, one dark, somewhat crude painting of a workers' parade and rally. In the foreground of this painting one sees a placard that reads “Hitler Murders Jews,” a message in 1936 that the world was not willing to hear. Neel’s work expresses compassion and curiosity about the similar to the contemporary photographs of the late Helen Levitt; we can watch these kids but we are never really invited to participate in their games or conversations. Levitt’s’“ street photography” has the same immediacy and intimacy observed in Neel’s paintings. Like Levitt, Neel's inspirations come from  the world as she finds it: gritty, hard and unembellished.

Decades later this independent, progressive lady was still ahead of her time in many things and many ways, from her political stance to her social views. While most Americans in the 60s and 70s were struggling with the passage of the Voting Rights Act or witnessing the Stonewall riots or debating the case of Roe v. Wade, Neel continued to paint everyone without regard to race, age, gender or sexual orientation. She painted the rich and the poor, Black, White and Hispanic, art stars like Andy Warhol and Duane Hanson, art couples like the art critics David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock, and many, many women, including those on the national political scene such as Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, or from New York artistic circles such as the Pop artist Marisol and the art historian Linda Nochlin. Nochlin’s radical and now historic 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” stands as a dictum about Neel. It wasn’t that there were no great women artists; it was that their access to the system was stymied. (In the immediate post-war era the artists were men, the critics were men, the dealers were men and the museums where it was all put together were run by men from good families.)  Neel’s 1974 retrospective, followed shortly the same year by a Joan Mitchell show at the Whitney, were rare occurrences -- solo shows by women artists organized by a major institution.



Alice Neel, Fire Escape, 1948. Oil on canvas.

Estate of Alice Neel.

Photo: Malcolm Varon


Neel’s women subjects are presented as they are at home: seated, naked, pregnant, alone or with their children; sitting with their domestic partners or husbands. These earthy and very moving portraits would provide a sociologist with a good cross section of the social disposition of five decades of American urban women. Neel’s rich pictorial character assessments run from images of the very young to her professional associates and friends in middle age, to the elderly as we see in Neel’s own 1980 self-portrait. She portrays herself honestly, unabashedly in the nude; and the painting reveals much about the artist. It declares her independent spirit, her growing age, and her abundant weight, but also stands out as the representation of a woman unafraid to allow the world to see her or and know her literally from head to toe.

There is something universal about a portrait, about painting a figure that comes from some walk of life and is dressed in a certain way, sitting in a chair or reclining on a sofa or reading at a table and conversing with the painter and expressing him or herself through that process. We might care less about the specifics of the sitter than the mood, or emotion or passion we read in the eyes, the turn of the head, or the way the figure is placed in the room or, more importantly for Neel, placed on the canvas. Neel saw through convention and made no bones about wanting to get to the sitter’s soul. She could do this in oil, or watercolor, or by sketching with pastel or drawing with graphite on paper. Neel was not bound by any single convention of art making and used the materials she needed to tell the story, exaggerating color or form to underscore the extremes, habits, distortions, and physical attributes that she wants to report about her sitter: smoking, wearing a bright red felt hat, staring with dark brooding eyes, or lying on a sofa showing off the fullness of a belly.

That said, it is the Neel style, her habit really, to dig in and find things in the portrait that are both positive and negative. Neel was able to use her powers of observation like an x-ray that reveals the structure beneath the skin to explore and exploit that very fragile thing that is our ego. Beyond the ego is the soul, and within it sits the pressures and feelings that form the lines and give shape to facial features, bodily stance, and the general architecture of the body. In the end, it was this human architecture that was, for Neel, something to examine, represent, and reveal unapologetically, including the flaws and idiosyncrasies of our physical forms. A case in point is an early watercolor dated to 1935 on view last spring in a show of works of the 1930s at Zwirner & Wirth Gallery in New York. At first glance, Katherine Hogle is a study of a lady wearing a long coat with a fur collar and a floppy hat. At second glance, however, one realizes her coat is her skin and the bodice of the coat is actually her pale body, naked to the wind and revealing a dense pubic area as stylish as her hat or shoes! She is neither embarrassed nor taken aback by her pose--it is who she is underneath the coat. Like a good reporter, Neel focuses on the facts and allows us to interpret the feelings and personas she discovers.

It is not surprising that twenty-five years since Neel’s death the vitality of her vision and the compassion expressed for her audience through her art remain of great interest and that her work has garnered an international audience. In a way, she is the ambassador of the American dream: she rose from humble origins to great success and experienced all the bumps in between. I remember her, appearing one night on the Johnny Carson Show—this must have been in the early 80s. She was certainly an odd guest in Carson’s world of glamorous Hollywood and Broadway. But she was fun to listen to and seemed to be the perfect, idiosyncratic and warmly entertaining lady artist that most Americans I’m sure had neither met nor seen, but was now being interviewed and chatting to them about her life through the TV sets in millions of bedrooms across America.

Her recent shows in London and Berlin demonstrate that her work is of interest to a European audience steeped in the tradition of portrait painting and keenly aware of her contemporaries, such as Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, and Gerhard Richter. Neel shares with these painters not only a love of paint and painterly abilities but also the psychological intensity of her sitters, the representation of character and type, passion and pain. Writing in Newsweek in 1966, art critic Jack Kroll explained, “Neel is the heir of the European expressionist painters who saw modern man distorted by unnamable demons. But the weather in her world is not depressing; it shows deep affection for the hard work the ego must do to find reasons for comfort and self-love.”

In the four decades since Kroll’s article, Neel has become in many ways a role model for women artists, painters and otherwise. She forged a life that was both professional and private, had a career and raised a family, saw failure and success, and in the end created a body of work that is insistent in its honesty and power. 

Her expressive manner of painting is timeless because it reaches out to viewers and directs us to see the humanity that links and unites every man, woman, and child.


Former head of the Microsoft Art Collection, Michael Klein is an art dealer and curator in New York City.