From the Fine Art Connoisseur May/June 2021 Editor’s Note:
Recently I headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, partly to catch up on exhibitions and partly because it was raining. Manhattan has been comparatively sleepy during the pandemic, so I was astonished to find a long line of people waiting patiently to visit the temporary exhibition “Alice Neel: People Come First.”
On view through August 1, this is the first retrospective devoted to Alice Neel (1900–1984) that New Yorkers have seen in 20 years. Its 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors reveal her as one of the 20th century’s most daring painters, as well as a champion of social justice at a time when that wasn’t particularly cool.
I personally had not encountered so long a line at the Met since its blockbuster featuring the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen in 2011 — a very different affair. Though I realized some of last Sunday’s pile-up owed to the rain and to current limitations on the number of people who can be admitted safely, my heart was warmed to see everyone appreciating such a deeply humane artist — one whose art has long delighted and puzzled me.
Clinging to her idiosyncratic brand of expressionistic realism right through the heyday of abstraction and beyond, Neel made frank portraits — like the one illustrated here — that are both insightful and unsettling. We see anxiety and melancholy, but also a thrilling commitment to engaging with people of all kinds, from professors and nursing mothers to addicts and drag queens.
“For me, people come first,” Neel declared in 1950. “I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.” In this year of aching disconnection — when most of us must still gaze at each other on glowing screens — the painted results of Neel’s unfiltered encounters feel especially thrilling. Even her still lifes and cityscapes ring true, completely in the moment.
If the Met had mounted the Neel retrospective two years ago, I doubt it would have resonated in quite the same way. This visit reminded me: it’s not the art that changes, it’s we who change. That’s one more reason to keep looking, keep going back to see your favorites — and also the ones you didn’t like last time. You never know when they might connect with who you are now.