By Jonathan Curiel

Special to The Examiner

In the last decade of Alice Neel’s life, she attained a level of name recognition that went beyond the art world.

Outsiders saw a maternal, gray-haired figure who was a muser, a quipster, a storyteller and, let’s put this as simply as possible: Happy. Everywhere she went — whether it was on national TV in 1984 as a guest of Johnny Carson, or to the White House in 1979 when she received a prestigious art award and gabbed with President Jimmy Carter — Neel was the apotheosis of a content, joyful person.

And that makes for a disconnect when you experience the new de Young Museum exhibit, “Alice Neel: People Come First,” which features scores of paintings that expose a world of personal suffering, political persecution, situations of great physical challenge, and what can otherwise be called “confronted realities.”

How could an artist of such relaxed countenance plunge the depths of human existence with such detail and empathy — and do it for many decades — without taking on some of those very depths? That’s one of the many questions that art-goers will have as they traverse an exhibit that reveals an artist who was both of her time and ahead of her time in the way she spotlighted people and scenes the art world had previously ignored.

A prime example: Women in revealing stages of pregnancy, where we see unvarnished views of bodies subject to the vicissitudes of extreme formations — as with Neel’s 1939 painting “Childbirth,” which shows a woman with bruised, darkened eyes that match the conditions of her darkened, exposed breasts. A vase of beautiful flowers stands to the woman’s left, and arms and hands caress the woman’s head, but these comforts belie a scene of utter exhaustion and trauma.

One way to think of “Childbirth”: It’s the antithesis of art history’s male gaze at nude women as personified by Ingres’ “Grand Odalisque” or Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” Another way to think of “Childbirth”: It did for female childbirth what Goya did for war with his monumental 1814 painting “The Third of May 1808.” Like Goya, who showed how war’s barbarism led to executions of unarmed men, Neel portrayed an unromanticized side of a subject that had been essentially hidden from public view.

Similar to Goya, Neel entered spaces like mental asylums that classically trained artists weren’t expected to paint but did. And like Goya, Neel experienced a series of personal tragedies around children — in Neel’s case, the 1927 death of her infant daughter to diphtheria, and then an early estrangement from her subsequent daughter whom Neel’s then-partner took from New York to Cuba in 1930.

After those two events, Neel tried to kill herself and spent time in psychiatric wards, giving her a level of empathy for people in precarious situations that would forever inform her painting, like the early exhibit works “Synthesis of New York— The Great Depression” from 1933 and “Ninth Avenue El” from 1935, which both feature clothed, skeleton-like figures traversing a shadowy New York City that, in real life, was experiencing devastatingly high unemployment.

One of the 20th century’s ‘most radical painters’ in much-anticipated de Young exhibit

Alice Neel, “The Black Boys,” 1967. (Courtesy Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner)

Politically, Neel said she was “an anarchic humanist” — a term that referenced her lifelong interest in socialism and communism (she joined the Communist Party in 1935); her active contributions to leftist publications; and her public protests, with other artists and activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to have New York museums hire more Black curators and showcase more art from Black artists. Neel’s beliefs are evident in her 1964 portrait of civil rights leader James Farmer, made three years after Farmer organized the first Freedom Ride event that helped force the U.S. federal government to eliminate de facto bus segregation in Southern states. “James Farmer” is Neel at her artistic heights. Neel shows him with a clenched mouth, furrowed brow and his right leg crossed over his left — all the while looking almost directly at the viewer, but to the right just enough to give this portrait an added visceral edge, as if Farmer is asking the viewer, “What have you done to make the world a better place?”

Confronting art-goers with exacting questions or exacting subjects was a Neel specialty, and true to Neel’s character, she didn’t spare herself. Perhaps Neel’s best-known painting is her 1980 work called “Self-Portrait,” which shows the elderly Neel naked as she sits on a blue-striped chair and holds a paint brush in her right hand. Like Farmer, she’s looking just to the right of the viewer, giving this painting an added tension beyond the artwork’s upfront nudity. By then, Neel was overweight and sagging across her body. She didn’t care. One year after hanging out in the Oval Office with Jimmy Carter, who had himself crossed a cultural line in 1976 with a Playboy interview where he admitted that “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” Neel crossed an artistic Rubicon that elevated her name to a wider public.

One of the 20th century’s ‘most radical painters’ in much-anticipated de Young exhibit

Alice Neel, “Self-Portrait”, 1980. (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

But one of the enduring dichotomies of Neel’s life was her relative lack of attention during her lifetime. Yes, she had flurries of name recognition and celebratory honors before she died in 1984, as with her 1970 commission to paint feminist author Kate Millett for the cover of TIME magazine (a copy of which is at the de Young). And she exhibited widely in her last decade, but that was mostly in galleries and smaller museums. In 2000, the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized the first comprehensive retrospective of her work, which inspired renewed interest in Neel’s art and eventually led to “Alice Neel: People Come First,” which originated at New York’s Metropolitan Museum before arriving in San Francisco.

At Wednesday’s press preview, Thomas Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, called Neel “one of the 20th century’s most radical painters” and a “groundbreaker who ignored convention.” He also said the exhibit “has brought Neel from obscurity to a well-deserved limelight,” but the truth is more complicated than that. During her lifetime, Neel was widely known in the art world — including for her works of LGBTQ figures. Andy Warhol was a friend, and Neel painted Warhol.

That portrait isn’t included at the de Young, but in the excellent exhibit catalog; Met curators Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey say that Neel’s portrait generated significant debate about how accurately it portrayed Warhol. Did it make him look too effeminate? Warhol had mixed feelings. And that’s what Neel did much of her artistic life: Give art-goers and the subjects she painted an unadorned look at themselves. Whether that made people comfortable or not seemed much less important for Neel than getting at a complicated truth.

IF YOU GO:

“Alice Neel: People Come First”

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Golden Gate Park), S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, March 12-July 10, 2022,

Tickets: $13-$28

Contact: (415) 750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org

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