New Book ‘Alice Neel: An Engaged Eye’ Exalts the Great Portraitist of Otherness

This past July 12, a New York Times headline blared what practically sounded like the launch of a full-blown campaign: It’s Time to Put Alice Neel in Her Rightful Place in the Pantheon. They were right; and it should be stated that said pantheon does not just include the top female artists of her generation, but arguably all of the most prominent American artists of the 20th Century.

The story was concurrent to The Met’s retrospective Alice Neel: People Come First, which ran from March 22 until August 1 of this year, and was unfortunately forced to compete with the rising and falling and rising again of COVID infection rates. It will be followed by yet another major exhibition, this time at Paris’ Pompidou Centre. Indeed, Alice Neel: Un Regard Engagé (which translates loosely to “a committed gaze”) will at last open in October 2022, after a long pandemic related delay. And pegged to the exhibition but on shelves now, ACC Art Books has just published Alice Neel: An Engaged Eye, perhaps the definitive tome on her life and career.

Like her peer Diane Arbus, Neel (born in Pennsylvania in 1900, died from cancer in New York in 1984) found beauty and profundity in those who skirted the perimeter fences of societal acceptance. She was in many ways an “expressionist,” but without the anguished bluster of so many of her male peers who worked either deliberately or vaguely under that banner. Rather, as a portraitist, she sought to connect the viewer with the intrinsic essence of her subjects, by not immortalizing them, but rather uncovering them, and removing facades and prejudices. She was also a kind of matter-of-fact social justice warrior, in that her paintings were not artistic acts of storming the barricades, but rather of demanding dignity for all those she chose to paint.

A measure of that justice was reserved for the circumstances of her fellow women, redirecting the “gaze” to the female point of view. And so the book includes her riveting Pregnant Maria (1964), with the subject lounging languorously in the nude, exuding a confidence and aplomb that stands athwart the judgment of men (or anyone). And Annie Sprinkle (1982) depicts the intrepid stripper / porn star as someone definitely in charge of her body and her self, who also just happened to be one of the adult film industry’s first notable activist feminists.

Indeed, as a new contemporary feminism began to take root, in 1971 Neel famously remarked, “I have always believed that women should resent and refuse to accept all the gratuitous insults that men impose upon them.”

Fittingly, the book takes an ideological stance that reflects her own, being structured in two thematic parts: social injustice and gender inequality. One wonders what she might think if she knew how far those fights still have to go, 37 years after her passing (or what Texas politicians would think of Pregnant Maria).

But it’s not difficult to discern in 2021 how her visceral documentation of the essential humanness of immigrants, gay couples and marginalized creatives was very far ahead of its time, and makes Alice Neel: An Engaged Eye feel utterly exigent, even defiant.

“Neel places us directly in front of her models to engage our look,” observes Pompidou Centre Curator of Modern Art Angela Lampe. “She literally pushes her subjects into our personal space to make us confront individuals who are normally invisible. With great pictorial power, Neel forces them upon us: look at them!”

You’ll be constantly surprised by what you see.

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