Alice Neel: People Come First is the first museum retrospective in New York of American artist Alice Neel (1900–1984) in 20 years. This ambitious, career-spanning survey at The Met positions Neel as one of the century’s most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art, as demonstrated in the survey’s approximately 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors. Alice Neel: People Come First will be on view March 22 through August 1, 2021.
“Alice Neel was an outstanding painter whose iconic ‘pictures of people,’ as she called her portraits, radiate her fierce personal belief in humanity’s inherent dignity and her steadfast social conscience,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “This important exhibition places Neel’s life and art within the context of the 20th century, considering them both in relation to the major events and upheavals of the time. Throughout her long career, Neel remained true to her own vision—despite many obstacles—and today her imagery resonates with our own challenging cultural and political circumstances in striking ways.”
Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, added: “Neel’s portraits are deeply human: her empathy for the people in her community resulted in paintings of such unflinching intensity it is as if past and present—their time and ours—are brought together in a single moment. Now, when personal histories are crucial to establishing self-identity, Neel’s world tells the stories of human beings from all walks of life in the city she called home. Together they vividly capture the unique character of New York City.”
The exhibition spans the entirety of the artist’s career, from her professional launch in Cuba in the 1920s and her work as part of the W.P.A. in the 1930s, through her resolute commitment to centering the figure in her painting at a time when abstraction was ascendant, in the 1940s and 1950s; her resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s; and the emergence of her “late style” in the 1980s.
In keeping with the artist’s commitment to painting “pictures of people,” which she considered to be historical records of the time in which they were made, the exhibition will feature dozens of Neel’s most striking portraits, celebrated today for their unyielding psychological acumen. The survey also sheds light on her accomplishments in other genres, specifically still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes. The inclusion of relevant ephemera and personal effects—such as photographs and leftist periodicals to which she contributed drawings—illuminates her relationships, personality, and political convictions as well as her eventual entree into American popular culture. Neel was a longtime resident of New York, and the city served as her most faithful subject. Indeed, the sum total of her work testifies to the drama of its streets, the quotidian beauty of its buildings, and, most importantly, the diversity, resilience, and passion of its residents.
Alice Neel: People Come First presents and interprets the artist’s work in eight sections that highlight her engagement with key subjects that recur over her career. Neel’s connection to New York City is a major focus. Another section groups Neel’s many paintings and drawings of interior spaces, mostly in her own home, an intimate, psychologically charged setting that occasioned still lifes full of drama and personality but also a series of sometimes erotic, sometimes poignant portraits of family members and lovers. The exhibition’s most robust section is devoted to the many bohemians, dissidents, and activists that Neel painted (and with whom she frequently collaborated) over the course of her life, including prominent Black rights leader James Farmer and the Lower East Side gender nonconforming performer Jackie Curtis. Another gallery showcases Neel’s empathetic penchant for rendering bodily and emotional affliction caused by loss, illness, injury, and, in the case of Andy Warhol, an assassination attempt.
“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”—Alice Neel, 1950
Alice Neel: People Come First is curated by Kelly Baum, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, and Randall Griffey, Curator, with Brinda Kumar, Assistant Curator, all in the department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met.
The exhibition is made possible by the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation. Major support is provided by the Adrienne Arsht Fund for Resilience through Art. Additional funding is provided by Angela A. Chao and Jim Breyer, Agnes Fund, and the Jane and Robert Carroll Fund.
Following its presentation at The Met, the exhibition will travel to Guggenheim Bilbao (September 17, 2021–January 23, 2022) and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (March 12, 2022–July 10, 2022).
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Hale University Press. Educational programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including a gender-focused Career Lab during Women’s History Month in March, and a Virtual Teen Studio that will explore themes of identity through Neel’s portraits.
While you’re there, check out The Eatery on the ground floor. It’s Open!
Can’t make the exhibition? Did you know that a new groundbreaking biography, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban, is set to publish on March 30, 2021. Hoban’s biography of the renowned American painter Alice Neel tells the unforgettable story of an artist whose life spanned the twentieth century, from women’s suffrage through the Depression, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and second-wave feminism. Throughout her life and work, Neel constantly challenged convention, ultimately gaining an enduring place in the canon. Born into a proper Victorian family at the turn of the twentieth century, Neel reached voting age during suffrage. A quintessential bohemian, she was one of the first artists participating in the Easel Project of the Works Progress Administration, documenting the challenges of life during the Depression. Pre-orders available now at David Zwirner Books.