I knew nothing of Alice Neel or her artwork until I came across a retrospective of her at the MET in my newsfeed. It’s not the kind of art I’m usually drawn to and yet it struck me full in the face. I could not look away. It was those faces looking back at me, steely-eyed, or curious, defiant, indifferent—each face imposing in its own way. Each strong and vulnerable at the same time. All their frailties exposed as well as the undeniable beauty of their imperfections. And even more so, what impresses is the precise and utter uniqueness of their individual humanity.
“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.’’
So writes Alice Neel of her artwork, and that’s what I saw there—the dignity and the eternal importance–of each person in those portraits. That’s what she revealed.
Raw, caustic, gritty. All the nicety, sentimentality, and usual clichés stripped away. Leaving the viewer, this one at least, feeling raw, exposed, vulnerable herself. Stripped down to that one commonality that unites us—-our fatal flaws and the dignity by which we bear them. We see this in all her paintings.
We see it in the careless and somber curiosity of the two restless girls gazing at the artist intent upon capturing their likeness. How can you look away from those eyes? Or the ones in the next portrait.
This distended body of the pregnant woman whose “deer-in-the-headlights” face reveals all the expectant wonder and uncertainty of what lies before her.
The close-eyed submission on the face of the proud artist Andy Warhol as he allows the indignities of an abused body to be revealed.
The dark brevity of a young Vietnam draftee who expresses the resignation and uncertainty of a future that is left sketched so lightly before him.
The weary warmth and love of the breast-feeding mother, and the helplessness and hunger of the child who so desperately depends upon her.
The somber “back at ya” gaze of the nude man in all his hairy splendor, completely vulnerable to the female gaze in a role reversal.
Then there’s the last self-portrait of Neel herself toward the end of her long career, gazing away into the distance with a kind of calm resignation or disregard, while the bulk of the portrait is filled with the lines and planes of a full, well-used, aging body. What we leave behind. What was dear to us and others. What will be no more.
But for now here she is, her body open and on display in all its imperfect glory. She dares us to look away from our own mortality. But also invites us to see the “dignity and eternal importance” of each and every one of us.