It is said that the future is female, and one can only hope. But it is important to remember that the past, through continuous excavation, is becoming more female all the time. The latest evidence is the gloriously relentless retrospective of Alice Neel (1900-1984), the radical realist painter of all things human, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Alice Neel: People Come First” is a momentous show of more than 100 paintings, drawings and watercolors from streetscapes, still lifes and interiors to the portraits of a veritable cross section of New Yorkers, occasionally nude, that are considered her greatest works.
The largest Neel retrospective yet seen in New York and the first in 20 years, it reigns over prime Met real estate — the Tisch Galleries, typically host to historic figures like Michelangelo, Delacroix and Courbet, and only now to a female artist. This array confirms Neel as equal if not superior to artists like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon and destined for icon status on the order of Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney.
“People Come First” opens with a gut-punch, a 1978 portrait that almost dares you to enter: “Margaret Evans Pregnant.” Evans, wife of collage artist John Evans, is naked, her belly and breasts swollen by the imminent arrival of twins. She perches on what appears to be a gold velvet slipper chair, her pose at once regal and precarious, her staring eyes mimicking Neel’s scrutiny. Her profile and left shoulder register in a mirror close by, the reflection foretelling how childbirth will deflate her form. The painting announces several Neel themes: motherhood, female agency, individual personality and the body.
VR Sunil Gohil