Alice Neel (1900 – 1984) was one of the century’s most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art. This is the first comprehensive West Coast retrospective of Neel’s work. The award-winning exhibition includes paintings, drawings, and watercolors, along with additional artworks and media exclusive to the San Francisco presentation.
Neel spent most of her life in New York City, and her work testifies to the diversity, resilience, and passion of the people she encountered there. The exhibition includes depictions of Neel’s neighbors in Spanish Harlem, political leaders, queer cultural figures, activists, and mothers, along with a diverse representation of nude figures, including visibly pregnant women. Neel’s “pictures of people” embody a rare candor and irreverence. Together they emphasize her belief in the dignity and worth of all individuals, a view that remains critical to the social and cultural politics of our time.
Alice Neel visited San Francisco first in 1967 and again in 1969, spending nearly two months in the Bay Area with her son Hartley and future daughter-in-law Ginny. Hartley was then living with Ginny, who assisted Neel with stretching canvases during her visits. Neel painted a number of portraits during these visits, including Pregnant Julie and Algis (1967), Ginny in a Striped Shirt (1969), and Ginny in Blue Shirt (1969), which are featured in the exhibition.
The de Young presentation of Alice Neel: People Come First includes the addition of a rarely seen silent film documenting Neel in the process of painting Ginny in Blue Shirt. Hartley documented the sitting in the couple’s apartment near Buena Vista Park with a 16 mm Bolex camera. He later edited the film by hand and stored it away until it was rediscovered in 2006, when Hartley’s son, Andrew, began work on his 2007 documentary about Alice Neel’s life. This rarely seen footage captures the intimacy and intention of Neel’s painting practice.
Ginny recalled, “Alice came and visited. . . . and painted and painted and painted. Most of the time I was with her, helping her stretch canvas or buying supplies. She loved San Francisco. She admired the freedom we thought we had here. She led her life either how she had to or wanted to. She never worried about what anybody thought, it just didn’t occur to her. She wanted recognition for her paintings, but her life was hers.”
“I was so honored to be asked ‘Can I paint you?’ . . . Alice was wonderful at engaging you. She would tell you things and get into how you felt about things. When she hung the painting up on the wall, I had a very strange sensation of being there on the wall and in my body. She caught something I recognized in myself.”
We want to remind visitors she wasn’t just painting protests. In my mind she was a radical who painted radicals, a protester who painted protesters. That’s what made them so powerful.
This show is an excavation of its own. It sustains return visits and careful attention to the text labels. Take in the portraits whole and then in parts. Look, for example, at the strikingly rendered hand and the emotional notes they add.
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Diane B. Wilsey
The Herbst Foundation, Inc.
Jason E. Moment
Lorna Meyer Calas and Dennis Calas
Juliet de Baubigny
The Harris Family
Free admission to Alice Neel: People Come First on opening day was generously underwritten by Gucci.