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Two brothers posed for a portrait. One lived to see it in the Met.
Alice Neel’s “The Black Boys,” of ,Jeff and Toby Neal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, March 17, 2021. Neel painted the two neighborhood boys in her studio in the 1960s. Fifty years later, the mystery of what happened to the picture has been solved. Amr Alfiky/The New York Times.

by John Leland



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Jeff Neal was 8 or 9 years old, an older friend would take him and his brother Toby on trips around New York City. They would go to the Empire State Building or the parks, and one day they went to a large apartment on the Upper West Side that was filled with paintings.

This was the mid-1960s.

The apartment was where Alice Neel lived, and it was the kind of place where people came and went freely. Neel was not famous yet — it was still a decade before she had her first museum show — and if her visitors caught her eye, she might ask to paint them.

The brothers’ friend, Allen Tobias — who was like a surrogate older brother and had arranged the visits — assured them: She is going to be a famous painter someday.

The two boys sat for her perhaps a dozen times, returning week after week. And she always gave them snacks, recalled Jeff Neal, now 64. “That’s what kept me sitting there.”

Then, nothing.

The brothers grew up. Jeff Neal saw Neel on television with President Jimmy Carter. She was on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Tobias ran into her outside a Cuban restaurant on Broadway in the early 1980s. “I said, ‘What happened to the painting, Alice?’” he recalled. She told him she had made a few changes so she could sell it, but not much more.

It was the last time he saw her alive.

And when Toby Neal died in 2010, Tobias mentioned the painting at his memorial service, and when people asked how they could see it, he had to tell them: No one knows.

Now they do.

Jeff and Toby Neal, in their boyish mixture of grace and boredom, gaze prominently from a wall in “Alice Neel: People Come First,” a career-spanning exhibition running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Aug. 1 — the first time the painting has been shown in New York City.

On a March afternoon before the exhibition’s opening, Jeff Neal and his wife, Gina, stood in front of the painting, eyeing it for the first time. He calls himself a master barber, now mostly retired since a car accident. His wife stood behind him and hugged him. The two have been together since middle school. Tobias, 77, looked on.

“I always thought it was going to come back to me,” Neal said, beaming at the image of his younger self and his brother, now gone 11 years. “I would dream about it, and then I would ask Allen about it. He said, ‘No, hadn’t heard anything.’ I would see her on the news and say, ‘Wow, I wonder what happened to my painting.’”

Neel, who died in 1984, painted hundreds of people over her six-decade career — some famous, such as Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, but many just people from her neighborhood, whose names are largely lost to time. She told Carson, “I like to paint people who have been ruined by the rat race in New York City. They’re damaged and they’re mutilated, but they’re still kicking.”

In the early 1960s, Tobias, a student at Columbia, met her through a mutual friend and started dropping in on her. Tobias, a child of Brooklyn, was a bohemian in the making: a writer and scholar who became Ginsberg’s first literary secretary, engaged in the radical politics of the time. Neel’s apartment became “a way station for me,” he said, as later he would frequent Ginsberg’s place in East Village. Neel would give him coffee and talk politics, he said. “She was very funny.”

Tobias befriended the Neal brothers while working as a summer playground teacher on West 145th Street, taking special interest in the boys because their father had just died. “They became my world,” Tobias said. He took them on weekend trips around the city or upstate.

They went to the Museum of Modern Art many times, and they talked about the civil rights movement and Cuba, Neal said. Tobias bought him a drum set. “Those were revolutionary times,” Neal said.




One day, Tobias surprised them. “We thought it was a regular date to the Empire State Building or someplace,” Neal recalled. “But I wound up in her house, and I tell you, she was a lovely lady.” Because, he said, of the similarity of their last names, “Me and Toby were thinking she was an ancestor of ours from slavery.”

Neel, who is now recognized as “one of the century’s most radical painters,” as the Met exhibition copy describes her, was then in her 60s, just emerging from relative obscurity. She became known in avant-garde circles for appearing in the 1959 Beat film “Pull My Daisy,” but she was “overjoyed” if she got a few hundred dollars for a painting, her son Hartley Neel said. Often she approached strangers on the street and asked to paint them, he said. She called herself “a collector of souls.”

She loved to paint children, often in pairs. She wanted to paint Tobias, but he was too shy, although she did paint the friend who introduced them, Jerry Sokol.

The boys’ mother bought them new shirts for their painting, and Tobias chaperoned them from 145th Street to Neel’s apartment.

“It was tormenting to me because Allen had me sitting up there for hours and days at a time in one position,” Neal said. “So at my age it was a little boring, but I got it done. It was like a job to me. At least I used to get a decent lunch from Allen out of it.”

Neel finished the painting of the Neal brothers but was unsatisfied until a few years later, when she added a column in the background to give it balance. Then it sat in her apartment for more than a decade, along with hundreds of other unsold portraits. “She loved this painting,” her son said.

When writer Patti Goldstein profiled her for New York magazine in 1979 (“The decaying building on 107th and Broadway,” the article begins, “has its better days long behind it”), Neel explained the clutter of canvases, saying, “I never appealed to the popular imagination, so not too many private people collect me.”

Goldstein, however, knew a good thing when she saw it. She bought “The Black Boys” from Neel, and the painting dropped out of sight.

“It hadn’t gotten lost, but there were no files on where it was sold,” said Hartley Neel's wife, Ginny, who did not know the identities of the boys in the painting. Goldstein died in 2006; her partner, Sandra Powers, declined to answer questions about the painting. In 2011, the painting passed quietly to the private Tia Collection in New Mexico, where it remained until an exhibition in Tucson, Arizona, in 2016.

It was just one of the loose ends in Alice Neel’s long career. “There are paintings she gave away in the ’30s and ’40s that we don’t even know exist until they come up for auction,” Ginny Neel said.

Tobias continued to look for the painting. Jeff and Gina Neal raised their family. Alice Neel died in 1984. Toby Neal died in 2010. Finally, a photograph of the painting, truncated, surfaced in the catalog for a 2017 exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in New York, but the painting was not part of the show.

When Tobias showed the catalog to Jeff Neal, “I was ecstatic,” Neal said. “Because that was something that I was looking for for the longest time, and it would be an honor for me to be able to represent that picture for me and my brother. I’m still here. Alice is gone, and Toby is gone.”

The week before the Metropolitan Museum show opened, Ginny and Hartley Neel, Jeff and Gina Neal, their son Desmond and Tobias all had a private viewing of the painting that had eluded them for so long.

Randy Griffey, one of the curators, said it was “special” to be able to connect a name and person with one of Alice Neel’s anonymous portraits.

Tobias gleefully moved between the Neel and Neal families, telling stories from a half-century ago, of a different world. He saw the painting as an artifact of two friendships — with Neel and with the Neal brothers — and of a city that once fostered such connections. Neel's son called it a record of trust between his mother and the people she painted, the absolute openness of the two boys to a wholly new experience.

Gina Neal struggled to say what the painting captured about her husband. Then she said, “The way he looks there is: He’s lonely. He’s wondering, 'What the heck is going on?' She captured all of that.”

Jeff Neal had the last word. After lamenting that his brother was not there to share the moment, he said, “I would say she was looking at two ghetto children from uptown and bringing out the beauty in us.”

There he was, on the wall of a magnificent museum that he had never visited before, looking right at home.

© 2021 The New York Times Company










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