Sixty-eight paintings by Alice Neel, the indomitable 20th-century portrait painter who captured the character of her time and the gamut of New York life over seven decades, are on view in "Alice Neel: Painted Truths" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
. Committed to portraiture throughout her life, an era when the genre was considered practically obsolete, Neel captured both the physical likenesses and the psychological essences of her sitters in bold, sometimes searing paintings. Neel painted neighbors in her gritty Manhattan district and members of the art-world elite, as well as her lovers, friends and children. "Alice Neel: Painted Truths" is the first major museum exhibition of Neel´s work in ten years, and the first to present her work in Europe. The show examines Neel´s oeuvre from a highly focused perspective, showcasing masterworks culled from the 1920s to the 1980s. Along with her famous portraits, a section of the show is also devoted to her lesser-known cityscapes that document tenement life from the inside.
Alice Neel: Painted Truths is organized by the MFAH and co-curated by Barry Walker, MFAH curator of modern and contemporary art and curator of prints and drawings, and Jeremy Lewison, former Director of Collections of London's Tate Gallery and currently an independent curator and advisor of the estate of Alice Neel. After the presentation in Houston, the show will travel to Whitechapel Gallery in London and Moderna Museet in Malmö.
"Despite almost single-handedly reviving portraiture in the 20th centurywith a little help from contemporaries like Andy Warhol, of courseNeel did not receive recognition until late in life," said Dr. Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. "Neel´s work is a true tour de force, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is pleased to present a selection of the most compelling paintings by this seminal American artist. The tour will give European audiences their first opportunity to assess the full range of her achievement in a large-scale museum exhibition."
"Because so many exhibitions have plumbed Alice Neel´s engaging bohemian life to interpret her work, we have focused on the art rather than the biography in Painted Truths, examining it from both traditional and postmodern points of view," states Walker. "This is, to use a politically incorrect term, a ´masterpiece show,´ tracing the evolution of the artist´s work through what are, arguably, her very best paintings."
The presentation is divided into sections according to Neel´s thematic preoccupations: allegory, the essential portrait, the psychological portrait, portraits from memory, cityscapes, nudes, parents and children, the detached gaze, and old age. In addition, two archival films play on loop in the gallery: an eight-minute silent film by Neel´s son Hartley, documenting the artist painting her daughter-in-law Ginny; and Michel Auder´s film showing Neel painting Margaret Evans Pregnant.
Alice Neel (1900-1984) was born in rural Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. On scholarship three out of four years, she attended the first women-only art school in America (now Moore College of Art and Design), where she excelled at painting from the figure. At 25, she married a fellow artist, Carlos Enríquez, and moved to his native Cuba. The couple had two daughters, whom Neel would lose: the first, Santillana del Mar, died of diphtheria in New York. Two years later, Enríquez took their second daughter, Isabetta, to Havana so that his sisters could raise her. These losses led to a nervous breakdown, and Neel was hospitalized.
A few months after her release, Neel settled down to eke out an artist´s existence in Greenwich Village (New York), always painting prolifically. During the Depression, she was one of the first join the Easel Division of the Work Progress Administration (WPA), which provided canvases and allowed artists to work from home. Unlike other urban realists on the Project, Neel brought an expressionistic vigor to her depictions of the lives of working-class New Yorkers. In a drug-induced rage in 1934, Neel´s then-lover, Kenneth Doolittle, burned 300 of her watercolors and drawings and slashed 50 paintings. Ten years later, the now-defunct WPA sold its collection of paintings at four cents a pound to a junk dealer. Neel was able to buy a few of her works back, but again suffered the loss of a considerable body of her early work.
In 1938, Neel moved to Spanish Harlem to "find more truth," continuing to paint family, friends, and neighbors, and giving birth to two sons (Richard and Hartley). She lived there for almost 25 years, honing her skills as a portraitist despite the ascendance of abstraction, a movement dominated by male artists. Upon moving to the Upper West Side in 1962, Neel began to re-engage with the New York art world. Along with friends and family, curators, critics, dealers, art historians, and art world celebrities came to sit for her in her West 107th Street apartment/studio. At age 74 Neel was finally recognized with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
During the last two decades of her life, Neel became a cult figure, revered as much for her cheeky personality as for reinvigorating the sleepy genre of figuration and giving voice to a generation of women artists. An on-and-off member of the Communist Party, Neel, when interviewed by two FBI agents at the height of the McCarthy era, fearlessly asked the agents to pose for her, an offer that they unfortunately declined. After becoming a regular on the lecture circuit, she made two appearances on Johnny Carson´s The Tonight Show. In October 1984, ARTnews paid tribute to Neel by featuring her as the cover story, Alice Neel and the Human Comedy. She died of cancer that same month, surrounded by family in her apartment. At her memorial service, Allen Ginsberg read his poem The White Shroud.
At the dawn of the 21st century, some 15 years after Neel´s death, the Whitneytogether with the Philadelphia Museum of Artwould again exhibit Neel´s work, this time with a full retrospective. The MFAH´s 2010 presentation will be the first scholarly examination of her work in a decade.