Alice Neel's exclusive West Coast presentation comes to the de Young Museum
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Alice Neel's exclusive West Coast presentation comes to the de Young Museum
Installation view of Alice Neel: People Come First, de Young museum, San Francisco, 2022. Photograph by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are presenting the first comprehensive museum survey of work by American artist Alice Neel (1900–1984) on the West Coast. This retrospective positions Neel as one of the 20th century’s most radical painters—one who championed social justice and held a long-standing commitment to humanist principles that inspired both her art and her life. Featuring a multitude of Neel’s paintings, drawings, and watercolors, as well as a rarely seen film unique to the de Young museum’s presentation, the de Young is the only West Coast venue for this revolutionary exhibition.

“Though Alice Neel called New York City home, much of her persona and art, overflowing with uncompromising humanism and regard for all people, aligns deeply with the spirit of San Francisco,” stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Neel visited the city a few times in her lifetime, creating a number of works which will be on view in our presentation at the de Young. It is with much delight that we welcome Neel back to the Bay Area through her resounding paintings.”

This exhibition spans the entirety of Neel’s career, from her professional debut in Cuba in the 1920s and her work as part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s; through her commitment to centering the figure 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. Besides foregrounding her often under-recognized artistic accomplishments, Alice Neel: People Come First presents Neel as an artist who engaged with progressive politics throughout her lifetime.

Neel spent the majority of her life in New York City, where she painted countless depictions of the diverse, resilient, and passionate people she encountered. The exhibition includes portraits of Feminist, Civil Rights, and political leaders, activists, queer cultural figures, mothers, visibly pregnant women, musicians, nude figures, and many others, all of which illuminate Neel’s profound humanist principles.

“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.”

The exhibition’s presentation at the de Young has been divided into nine sections, drawing upon seven decades of Neel’s output. Working in a range of genres, the artist considered her “pictures of people” to be historical records of the time in which they were made. The exhibition also includes her accomplishments in other styles, specifically still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes.

The de Young’s presentation also includes a small interlude dedicated to Neel and San Francisco. Neel made two trips to the city to visit her son Hartley in 1967 and 1969. Hartley was then living with his future wife, Ginny, who assisted Neel with stretching canvases during her visits. It was during this time that Neel produced a piece titled Ginny in Blue Shirt (1969). In dialogue with the finished work is a rarely seen silent film showing Neel in the process of painting Ginny in Blue Shirt, captured by her son Hartley. Also distinct to the de Young’s presentation are select works by Neel juxtaposed with works drawn from the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including those by artists whom Neel herself admired.

Alice Neel: People Come First is on view from March 12 through July 10, 2022, at the de Young museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was co-curated by Kelly Baum, the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, and Randall Griffey, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The de Young’s presentation is coordinated by Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The exhibition starts by chronicling Alice Neel’s longtime home of New York City, where she began living and working in 1927. “New York City” explores Neel’s engagement with the architecture, inhabitants, and public spaces of the city, including views of Spanish Harlem, Central Park, and the subways and elevated trains that defined the urban landscape of the time. In the right corner, two separate protest scenes decrying Nazism and the execution of Willie McGee showcase Neel’s early activism. Neel’s experiences in New York in the 1930s and early 1940s, during which she was a member of the Federal Art Project, cemented her interest in “bearing witness”—that is, in documenting the people and places around her.

“Counter/Culture,” the largest section within the exhibition, is devoted to the many bohemians, dissidents, and activists whom Neel painted (and with whom she frequently collaborated) over the course of her life. Grouped thematically, these paintings map her various social causes and associations, from playwrights and activists to queer performers and leaders of the feminist and civil rights movements. In this section, the Fine Arts Museums’ painting Robert Avedis Hagopian (1971) celebrates the beloved local San Francisco concert pianist Robert Avedis Hagopian (1945–1984), who died from complications of HIV/AIDS. Together these paintings not only testify to the spirit of human rebellion but also speak to Neel’s own determination to break decisively with convention, both artistic and personal.

The gallery entitled “The Human Comedy” derives from the work of French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac, a name Neel invoked on more than one occasion. It displays some of Neel’s most heartbreaking drawings and paintings, including those of city hospitals and suicide wards. For Neel, the human condition was a source of constant inspiration, and she devoted herself to documenting instances of pain and suffering, endurance and resilience. Neel’s interest in these subjects is on full view in The Fuller Brush Man (1965), a depiction of Dewald Strauss, a salesman for the Fuller Brush Company who, after surviving Dachau and escaping Nazi Germany, heroically enlisted in the US Army. He earned a Purple Heart for his service after he returned to Europe and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

“Alice Neel and Art History” features select works by Neel juxtaposed with objects drawn from the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Bay Area artists featured in this section include Imogen Cunningham and Richard Diebenkorn. This section shines a light on the myriad ways the artist intersected with and also diverged from art historical precedent.

At the end of this gallery, visitors encounter the San Francisco interlude mentioned earlier in the release featuring Ginny in Blue Shirt (1969), a portrait of Neel’s future daughter-in-law, Ginny Neel, which was painted in San Francisco during Neel’s extended two-month stay in San Francisco in 1969. The painting is on view beside a rarely seen silent film, captured by her son Hartley, depicting Neel in the process of painting this work, which is unique to the de Young’s presentation.

The next two sections, “Home” and “Motherhood,” focus on many of Neel’s paintings and drawings of intimate spaces and personal moments as a mother, lover, and artist. In “Home,” paintings and drawings of domestic spaces, mostly her own apartments, feature her still lifes, full of drama and character, as well as a group of works depicting her lovers in moments of intimacy. “Motherhood” presents a survey of mothers both pre- and postpartum, all of them remarkable for their candor, shining a light on that most taxing and most complex of female experiences. Together these sections highlight Neel’s inextricable dual identities as both a mother and an artist.

“The Nude” presents some of Neel’s most provocative, groundbreaking nudes, including the artist’s own nude self-portrait, rendered when she was eighty years old. The exhibition concludes with “Good Abstract Qualities,” exploring works that demonstrate Neel’s avid experimentation with structure, technique, and abstraction. This last section highlights Neel’s formal innovations, drawing particular attention to her embrace of “unfinishedness,” as in Black Draftee (James Hunter), a 1965 portrait featuring a draftee of the Vietnam War scheduled to leave for duty in a week. Hunter was scheduled to return for a second sitting, but when he did not show, Neel declared the work complete in its unfinished state by signing it on the back. These works, both aesthetic and allegorical, function as a metaphor for becoming and un-becoming, beginnings and ends, life and death.

Finally, inside the de Young’s Media Room, two short films play on a loop, highlighting Neel’s dynamic and witty personality. These two films include Neel’s sparkling February 1984 appearance on the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as well as an excerpt from the documentary They Are Their Own Gifts (1978, directed by Lucille Rhodes and Margaret Murphy), providing an immersion into Neel’s working methods and philosophical outlook.

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