Probably no other twentieth-century American figurative painter developed as singular a style as Alice Neel. Her provocative portraits of art-world celebrities like Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg – along with dozens of other people who caught her fancy – made her the quintessential artist’s artist. But broad public recognition of Neel’s work was anything but immediate. Her portraits and dark social commentaries seemed hopelessly out of date during the mid-century decades of Abstract Expressionism; it wasn’t until the seventies that Neel, who died in 1984, really began to enjoy success. Now, 26 years after her first Whitney retrospective, figurative painting is the artistic style of the moment and Neel, its most uncompromising proponent, is about to be fêted again. “The Art of Alice Neel,” a traveling exhibit organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and opening at the Whitney on June 29, stands to reveal the painter not just as an idiosyncratic voice but an influential one.
Neel, born in 1900, was raised in a middle-class family on the outskirts of Philadelphia, but she left convention behind early. Even before she arrived in New York in 1927, she had married a Cuban artist and lost a child to diphtheria. Three years later, her husband deserted her, returning to Cuba with their second daughter, leaving Neel, in his wake, hospitalized for depression.
Over the next few decades, Neel moved from the West Village to a Spanish Harlem tenement; raised two sons, Richard and Hartley Neel, by two different fathers – she never married again – worked off and on for the WPA; and painted furiously.
As a portraitist, Neel was a genius at detecting her subjects’ inner lives. She was also notorious for exposing – and exaggerating – her subjects’ flaws. Even so, a stunning number of otherwise sensible citizens left their vanity at the door, allowing her to transform them via her own startling vision. Asking someone to sit was her highest compliment. Plus, she told great stories. Below, eleven of Neel’s subjects recall the artist and the experience of sitting for her.
Art critic, poet, director of
I first met Alice when I was assigned to do a review of her work for ARTnews. Then, in 1972, I was scheduled to do my first exhibition as a curator at the School of Visual Arts, where I was teaching, so I did an exhibition of the male nude. I particularly wanted to show Alice’s Joe Gould painting from the twenties, the three penises. No one had ever shown it – it was too controversial.
So I called her up and I went over to her apartment on 107th Street. And she said, “Who else is going to be in the show?” and I told her. And she said, “They’re all showing new paintings, aren’t they?” I said, “Well, some are a few years old.” And she said, “I have to do a new painting, too. And I’ve always wanted to paint you; you remind me of a faun. So lie down there on the sofa.” I was young and carefree then, so I committed myself to doing the painting. Which is kind of nervy when you consider that this curator is posing for a painting that’s going to be in the show he’s curating.
I went up to sit for her seventeen times. She labored over it. The routine was I would come there at around noon and she would give me little bits of cheese and crackers, because she liked the idea of feeding a starving poet. She would paint until it was dark and she had trouble with her eyes, and I would say, “Alice, can you really see what you’re doing?”
She was the kind of painter who talked while she painted. I was a good audience for her, because I was very interested to hear what it was like to live in New York City during the Depression. So in this living-room area, I’m posing stark naked; Nancy, her daughter-in-law, is coming in and out of the room; Alice is chatting away about the Depression and this boyfriend and that boyfriend. She looked like a grandmother – a Saturday Evening Post grandmother. She had that beauty that an older woman can have. She had great eyes; she had the devil in her eyes. She had a foul mouth, and she was a vicious gossip. So there I was, lying naked in front of a vicious gossip.
She left to the last my genital area, so there was a big hole in the painting until the final session. And of course I was terrified when I would sneak looks at the painting, because she could be quite devastating when she painted you. My penis came out much larger in the painting.
I was so suprised that she referred to me as being a faun – you don’t usually think of her as doing paintings that have any classical allusions at all. But in fact I had often identified with the faun. I had even dressed up as a faun for a Halloween party. So I don’t know if she picked up on my subconscious or what.
I’m very happy that she conned me into posing for her. Tom Armstrong director of the Whitney, 1974-1990 liked my portrait a lot, and he had it hung in his dining room. Alice was very careful with my portrait, and I still don’t know why. She was merciless to other people. There’s that painting of former Whitney director Lloyd Goodrich, which is not very flattering, and he certainly could have helped her.
Director of the James Marston Fitch
When I first met Alice, it was at a show at the Whitney – she was a friend of my husband’s. I was pregnant, and she said, “When are you going to have the baby? Don’t you want a keepsake?”
My portrait took only two or three sittings. I was eight months pregnant, so she wanted to make it easy for me. We took little rests. It was fascinating to be around her – she had interesting opinions about everything. She would talk about other people she had painted; she would talk about her life; she would talk about politics. Alice called me after I gave birth and wanted to know if the babies were bald – she wanted to paint them immediately.
She made me feel very comfortable. She used to say, “Doesn’t she have nice small breasts?” Oh, another thing Alice said: “She’s very comfortable in her body.” That made me feel good, too.
I heard that she wasn’t happy with my portrait, that she thought something was missing. But I think she captured something going on that I didn’t show. There’s something that she caught – that I was totally expectant. People who see the portrait ask me about the mirror. They say, “Oh, you look so much older in the mirror.” I wasn’t all that placid. You know, there’s some anxiety in getting ready to give birth, and she caught that.
Co-owner, Cheim & Read Gallery
Alice painted me when I was 26, in 1979. I met her in 1977 when I was working at the Robert Miller Gallery. I pursued her and put her in a group show at Miller. She enjoyed the chase.
Alice had a very sweet grandmotherly appearance, but she could be quite playful and provocative. She would try to find some soft spot in her sitter – to get the real person out of them. She would tease you and watch your reaction. From that, she would compose a portrait. After the first few minutes, she would slip into almost a trancelike state. Her mouth would fall open, her concentration was so great.
She would refer to people as various kinds of animals. She always said my hands looked like veal chops.
I was active in the women’s movement at the time, and Alice Neel felt a lot of empathy with the women’s movement. She’d always been a kind of rebel, and this was something she believed in. We talked back and forth about her painting my portrait. I never found her abrasive, but I could see that she might be. She was a very competitive person – a fighter.
Anyway, she asked me to come and pose, and I don’t know how my daughter got into it, but she did. It was very fortunate, because my daughter is definitely the star of the portrait.
We went to her place on 107th Street. I think we did about six or seven sittings for the portrait. I had to sit there holding my daughter – it is very hard to pose with a child. Alice told stories, and she was really terrific with Daisy. We bribed her with food, but I told Alice we couldn’t give her sweets, so she went out and got all kinds of health-food snacks. She was very thoughtful in that way.
Sitting for her was the usual torture of having to sit still. But she was fascinating – in a way sort of incoherent, because she was concentrating. But bits of her life would come out, here and there a little story, an opinion – all mixed together.
My mother was horrified by the portrait. She said, “You don’t look so anxious and so worried in real life.” I’m rather a smiling type, actually. But Alice painted everyone like that. In a way, all her portraits embodied the anxieties of their times. They’re portraits of a universal existential anxiety. But they also embody, on a more literal level, the relative painfulness of sitting for a portrait.
She had a very definite style; everyone looks contemporary, and each person looks anxious in their own way. I think she was wonderful on children. She makes them the tense, intense little kids that modern urban children are, no roly-poly dumplings at all. Fraught. Unsentimental.
I didn’t want to pose. Alice forced me to.
I knew her for a long time. I used to see her at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters – she went there often because she lived nearby. I knew her when the art world was smaller and people used to go to different openings and everyone knew each other. I liked her, but she was always angry. I remember when she was very old and she was bitter. Maybe because she didn’t get enough recognition, but I doubt that was why. She would always insult me. She would say some nasty remark. At first I didn’t like it, but then I got used to it. That was before she painted me.
She really forced me into sitting for her – one of her daughters-in-law came to pick me up. I don’t like to sit still while somebody paints me. But I liked her, anyway. She was such a character. She was very strong.
She had painted my friend Dennis Florio, who was a kind of picture framer to the stars. Dennis took me over to Alice’s a couple of times just to visit, and we got to know each other. I was in the mainstream sex industry – a professional call girl, a porn star, and a sexual-rights activist. She was fascinated by the work I was doing in pornography, sex workers’ rights, trying to decriminalize prostitution, so she asked if she could paint me, and I said of course.
I found the experience very erotic – I thought she was a very sexy, powerful woman. She was passionate about every little thing. She would almost have an orgasm over my high heels. I brought lots of costumes. I had just gotten my labia pierced, and she really liked that. It was unusual at the time; now everyone has it. She was a sexy woman, very attractive. So there was an erotic connection between us.
Alice brought the lowbrow into the highbrow. We both got a thrill out of her being 83 or 84 and me being the sex-goddess slut that I was. I went on to become an artist – I think Alice influenced me. I’m in the Ph.D. program to be a sexologist at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. I’ve done everything else, so I thought I should get a Ph.D. Alice would be proud of me.
Son of Alice
The date of the one that I remember posing for – and she painted me as a baby – was in Spring Lake, New Jersey, in 1945 or ‘46, and I think I’d just been at summer camp. And what I remember from that was the awkwardness of the pose. I had my hand up, like this, although that’s characteristic of me. I can still remember the sitting in that chair, the feeling of the chair. Alice always did make you sit a little bit longer than you wanted to. For that painting, I doubt whether there were more than three sittings. From then on, there are a lot of paintings of me, and my brother and me.
Alice always, even before she was recognized, thought that she was a great artist, and she led all of us to believe that that was the case. She always taught us to respect the work and to respect her sense of its value. I was not known as a good artist in class, but I always thought that if I asked my mother to give me lessons, I could become a really good illustrator or whatever. I persisted in that idea until I was about 12 years old. I even told some of the girls in class that I had a mother who was an artist and she’d teach me how to be one, too. But I don’t think anyone outside the family circle was impressed, at that time.
Every painting was a different experience. Once, we were having coffee in the cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art, and she said, “Gee, I love that pose – when you get home, I’ll paint you in that pose.” So I posed at home pretending I was at the Museum of Modern Art.
Richard Neel’s former wife
The first real memory I have of meeting Alice was on New Year’s Eve of 1957. Alice’s apartment was a great place to go. So for some reason, a whole crowd of us landed there for a period of time – we were traveling around the city to different parties. She was interesting to me because she was immediately enthusiastic.
She didn’t paint me until 1963, right after Richard and I were married. Someone came in and saw it and said, “I don’t know what Nancy turns into at midnight.” It was never shown – it was a real monster. It’s in storage now. Maybe she wasn’t happy that her first son had just gotten married.
I think our personalities fit well together, because she was outgoing and I was more reticent. And I wasn’t an artist and I wasn’t competing with her.
There are special circumstances surrounding each painting she did of me. The one of Olivia and me was done in Spring Lake. I remember Olivia was a very active child, she was about three months old. Olivia was always jumping around, and she didn’t like to sit still. Alice would say, “Keep that baby still.” I wasn’t very successful in keep-ing her quiet, but the painting did get painted. But of course the way people interpret the picture is that I was a scared mother. She was my first child, and I knew nothing about taking care of kids. I thought the uncomfortable look I have in the portrait was just me trying to keep Olivia still, but what Alice picked up on is that I didn’t know what I was doing.
Former mayor of New York
A member of my staff, Mary Tierney, made the initial contact with Alice. I knew I was privileged to be painted by this extraordinary woman; people told me how important she was. I sat a very long time for her, but she was very engaging. An exotic personality, I thought.
All these paintings were strewn around the place. I didn’t think the painting she did of me looked like me, but I liked it anyway. She was interesting to talk to. She had this amazing face. And she was quite old at the time. Now I’d be just the right age to have another painting done by Alice.
Director of the documentary
Portrait of Alice Neel: 1976-1982
I met Alice at a party in 1976. I heard her talking to people and I thought Jesus, she’s so interesting. So I approached her and asked her if I could come to her studio and videotape her – she had such interesting stories and good humor. So I went and visited her. Nancy, her daughter-in-law, got some pizza for us. We hung out there the whole day. At that time she had so many of her paintings in the place. She showed me maybe forty paintings and she had something witty to say about every one of them.
Then we became friends. I used to visit once or twice a week for three or four years. She was always interested in video, she had an understanding of it. I shot one session of Alice painting me with the camera on the tripod. For me, being painted by Alice was not that different from hanging around with her. I had seen her so many times working on other people. When she painted me it was like talking to her as usual. I was proud that she was painting me. It made me feel like part of the family. But I never doubted that anyway.
I had known Alice since the late sixties and had met her at the Art Workers Coalition, which was started by a group of New York artists in the late sixties. She was interested in all kinds of change and progress. So when the women’s movement began, Alice took an active interest in it. She was an artist, but she was also taking time to live a life that related to change.
In 1977, I had just come back from Africa, and Alice asked to paint me in the nude. I said no, that I didn’t want to be a specimen. I knew Alice had a way of painting people so that you saw them in ways you’d never seen them before. I didn’t want to be uncovered in that way. Now I kind of wish I had done it back then – because today I definitely wouldn’t pose in the nude. So anyway, I put on this red dress and my hair was braided with beads, because I had just come back from my trip and I thought the beads would go over well in Ghana and Nigeria, and that I could pass as an African – but they all knew I was American.
I probably posed for her on two or three different occasions. It was very easy for her – I guess that’s the way it is when you’ve painted for so many years. She was very fluid, and it was wonderful listening to her talk and watching her paint. I don’t think she liked that painting, because she wanted it to be a nude picture. Alice was wonderful at manipulating flesh, and that’s another reason I’m sorry I didn’t pose nude.
She was as young as any young person I knew. She might have been a little slower-moving, but not slower-thinking.