‘Alice Neel: People Come First’ breathes humanity into appearances

Photo of the Alice Neel exhibit
Gary Sexton/Courtesy

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Over a dozen pairs of painted eyes stare out of a blown-up black-and-white photograph, each pair of eyes coming from a person who once sat for Alice Neel as she painted their image. Neel herself sits cross-legged in front of her many works, her eyes pointed in the same direction as her painted people, softly gazing upon each visitor as they enterAlice Neel: People Come First.” 

Though Neel passed away in 1984, her work continues to captivate given its authentic balance between the internal and external characteristics of human beings. On display through July 10 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, the exhibition features Neel’s comprehensive works, ranging from oil paintings on stretched canvases to illustrations appearing in leftist periodicals.

Social activists, neighborhood children and LGBTQ+ performance artists are just some of the people who sat to be painted by Neel, each imbued with their own psychological and emotional interiorities in her work. Due to its air of superiority, Neel left aside the term “portraits” when referring to her artworks, instead deeming them “pictures of people.” Reflecting this same sense of humanity in her artistic process, Neel never posed her sitters and, instead, painted them in positions they naturally assumed, individual imperfections and all. 

In “Robert Smithson,” Neel offsets the strong, angular profile of the young artist with thick layers of colored paints on his cheek, depicting his acne with beautiful honesty. In another painting entitled “Black Draftee (James Hunter),” she found incompleteness to be symbolic; Neel only painted Hunter’s head, his left hand and the outline of his body because he was drafted to the Vietnam War and didn’t return for a second sitting. Thus, the emptiness of the canvas is imbued with a meaning all its own. 

Unafraid to take on socially suppressed topics, Neel often focused on the struggles of lower-class women and was one of the first Western artists to portray childbirth in a painting. She also depicted many expectant mothers, drawing attention to their curves and stretched bellies with elegant fluidity while simultaneously shedding light on the raw discomfort of pregnancy. 

In “Well Baby Clinic,” contorted babies without faces and mothers with rectangular pupils scatter throughout the maternity ward in which Neel gave birth to her second daughter, Isabetta. White bed frames cast dark shadows reminiscent of prison bars across the floor, mirroring the shape of one mother’s exaggerated teeth. Even Neel is included in the chaotic scene, hiding in the back with eyes cast down and grayish skin, conveying the unsettling reality of a hospital stay for many women. 

Midway through the exhibition, a silent film documentary stills creaking footsteps and hushes soft whispers. The painting “Ginny in a Blue Shirt” hangs to the right of the film, washing a surreal intimacy over viewers as the camera cuts from closeups of Neel’s hand dragging her paintbrush across the canvas to a full body shot of her daughter-in-law Ginny blinking back at the camera. Captured on a 16mm Bolex camera by her son Hartley, each paint stroke and slight gesture mesmerizes viewers with a meditative quality, embodying the appreciation Neel had for her craft and for each person she came in contact with.

Neel’s nude paintings take up the latter portion of the exhibition, providing space for her interest in the human body. Painting people across gender, race and age, Neel extends each person’s interiority into their painted image, depicting them as complex beings rather than sexual objects to lust after.

At the age of 80, Neel turned toward her own naked body for her first and only self-portrait. With sagging breasts and wrinkled cheeks, she unapologetically looks directly at the viewer with openness and sincerity, refusing to repress the signs of age that her life has gifted her. 

Decades after her death, Neel’s perceptive eyes still dig into the persona of each person who steps in front of her work. She’s leaving her mark, contagiously spreading her eagerness to be captivated by each blemish and scar that make up humanity.

Amanda Ayano Hayami covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].