Opening: ‘Alice Neel: People Come First’ at San Francisco’s de Young Museum

Above: Installation view of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Photo by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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.

So it’s only fitting that as we begin what appears to be the final climb out of this long and deadly pandemic – which devastated the business of museums for nearly two years – San Francisco’s de Young Museum should open Alice Neel: People Come First, the first comprehensive retrospective of her work on the West Coast.

Like her ideological 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.

Alice Neel “The Black Boys,” 1967 Oil on canvas 46 1/4 × 40 in. (117.5 × 101.6 cm) Tia Collection, Santa Fe, New Mexico

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. 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.”

And so the exhibition rightly includes a section titled “Motherhood,” a survey of and tribute to pre- and postpartum mothers, focusing on a subject that was (and still is) rarely addressed in modern and contemporary art. Another section, inspired by French novelist Honore de Balzac, rightly bears the title “The Human Comedy” – and includes some of her most poignant work, drawings and paintings depicting the suffering and anguish of those confined to hospitals and suicide wards. But there is also space reserved for heroism, as her Fuller Brush Man (1965) portrays Dewald Strauss, a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp who went on to earn a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge.

Alice Neel, “Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd”, 1970. Oil on canvas; framed: 154.3 x 108.9 cm (60 3/4 x 42 7/8 in.); unframed: 152.4 x 106.4 cm (60 x 41 7/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 2009.345 © The Estate of Alice Neel © The Estate of Alice Neel. Image courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Elsewhere, the exhibition is divided up into classifications like “New York City,” which looks at the city that nurtured her, and inspired her to a lifetime of activism; “Counter-Culture,” dedicated to her portraits of the activists, bohemians and general outsiders with whom she surrounded herself throughout her life – including the painting Robert Avedis Hagopian (1971), an homage to the concert pianist and eventual AIDS victim; and “Alice Neel and History,” which draws from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco collections.

“Alice Neel dedicated her practice to portraying both people and moments in life that have often been erased or forgotten through time,” says Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Whether portraying the strength and struggles of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem, the labors of pregnancy and motherhood, or a generation of creatives devastated by the AIDS crisis, her works are unflinching in their honesty and radical in their interpretation.”

What is not at all difficult to discern in 2022 is how her visceral documentation of the essential humanness of immigrants, gay couples and marginalized creatives was so very far ahead of its time, and makes Alice Neel: People Come First feel not just relevant, but utterly exigent, and even defiant.

Alice Neel: People Come First will be on view at the de Young Museum through July 12. It will be followed by yet another major exhibition, when Alice Neel: Un Regard Engagé (which translates loosely to “a committed gaze”) opens at Paris’ Pompidou Centre this October, after a long pandemic related delay.

Above three images: Installation views of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Photo by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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