In a sense, Alice Neel’s portraits are always naked, at least psychologically; Neel brilliantly stripped her subjects down to their bare essence. As Joseph Solman, a fellow artist and old friend from her Socialist Realist days, once put it, “She turned a person inside out. If she did a portrait of you, you wouldn’t recognize yourself, what she would do with you. She would almost disembowel you, so I was afraid to pose for her. I never did pose for her.” Or as another old friend, artist Benny Andrews said, “I always said she was looking at you like an X-ray…”
Neel’s nudes — whether of men, women or babies — are in a class of their own. “Freedom,” the stunning show at David Zwirner, organized by Ginny Neel, includes stellar examples of some of Neel’s best work, from the 1930s through the early 1980s. They fall into several basic groups; her Social Realist-inflected nudes; her remarkable male nudes (in a room of their own); and her potent, pioneering pregnant nudes. For good measure, there are also her humorously erotic watercolors of herself and her lover John Rothschild, and several non-pregnant women in brazen poses, including Annie Sprinkle, gussied up in dominatrix gear.
Neel first began painting nudes at Moore College of Art & Design for Women (then known as the Philadelphia School of Design for Women), which she attended from 1921-1925. Her favorite class was a life class for the study of full-length nudes. (Neel’s generation was the first generation of female art students allowed to study live male nudes; until the end of the 19thcentury female students at art academies were not allowed to study live nudes of either gender.) “Of course for me that was heaven, just heaven, and one of the first things I did was a male nude.” (She also painted relatively graphic nudes of her friends and studio mates at the time, Rhoda Myers, wearing only a necklace and a wide-brimmed blue hat, and a boldly “uncompromising” nude of a clearly uncomfortable Ethel Ashton, her thick body crowding the frame.)
Ultimately, Neel became celebrated for her extraordinary nudes, particularly her pregnant nudes, which, like male nudes, had long been considered taboo.
For Neel, asking her potential subjects to pose nude was a key part of her standard routine. Several famous possibilities said no; Johnny Carson, for one, when she jokingly asked him during her second appearance on his show, not long before her death, and Mayor Koch, who posed in his shirtsleeves.
(Surprisingly, Andy Warhol posed for Neel stripped to the waist, revealing both his scars from Valerie Solanas’s assassination attempt and the surgical corset he now had to wear. The penetrating yet poignant painting is one of Neel’s best-known works. As is her iconic nude self-portrait, done at age 80; in it Neel perches in the blue-striped chair familiar from so many of her canvases, completely naked except for the tools of her craft: her glasses, a paintbrush and a rag.)
Neel’s scathingly honest vision of pregnancy and childbirth — well-represented in this show — began early, with her vividly depicted paintings of the 1930s, many of them autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. As Neel herself put it, Well Baby Clinic (1928/29) “makes my attitude toward childbirth very dubious. I wondered how that woman could be so happy, with that little bit of hamburger she’s fixing the diaper for.” Neel contrasts the clinical walls, the nurses’ crisp uniforms and the doctor proffering pills, with the rows of faceless, squirming infants and miserable looking mothers. She included a small image of herself, “that nice looking one” holding her daughter, Isabetta.
As I wrote in my biography of Alice Neel, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, “The artist was already embarking on a lifelong career as the anti-Cassatt.” Degenerate Madonna (1930), based on Neel’s decadent friend Nadya Olyanova, (“She represented decadence to me.”) shows a witchy-looking woman with sagging, pointy breasts, a pallid infant on her lap, the ghostly image of another in the background. The painting was protested by the Catholic Church and had to be withdrawn from the Washington Square Outdoor Art exhibit, where it was first shown in 1932. Childbirth (1939), with its postpartum image of a contorted body, bruised eyes and darkened nipples, depicts the vestiges of the harrowing labor experienced by Goldie Goldwasser, Neel’s neighbor in the maternity ward, where she had just given birth to her first son, Richard Neel. (Like most of the paintings of this period, it features a dark, brooding palette.)
In the 1960s, Neel embarked on a series of pregnant nudes, which are among her signature work. Neel became a grandmother during the Sixties revolution, with its upheaval of sexual mores and family values, and the pregnant nude — literally a physical embodiment of women’s basic conflicts — was the perfect subject matter, especially for Neel, who had always expressed her extreme ambivalence about motherhood, which she called an “awful dichotomy.”
Neel is one of very few artists to have painted pregnant nudes: among the more famous is Egon Schiele, whose influence can be felt in the composition of Margaret Evans, Pregnant (1978), and in the depiction of the genitalia in Neel’s gleeful portrait of her nude newborn grandson, Andrew (1978). Neel expertly captures the apprehensive anxiety in the eyes of Evans, seated on a cushioned chair just a bit too small for her expanded form, with (an eerie sliver of her reflection hovering in the mirror behind her,) as well as in Pregnant Woman (1971), a portrait of her daughter-in-law, Nancy, with Richard’s head looming in the background. Both portraits show Neel at the peak of her late-career form, her backgrounds light and fluid, her subjects infused with lucent, glowing color, all of them outlined in her trademark indigo blue.
And then there are Neel’s male nudes, including her famous 1933 portrait of Joe Gould, the Village character immortalized by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. The painting was considered so provocative that it was only shown publically for the first time at Moore College in 1971, nearly 40 years after it was painted, and remains shocking even today.
Neel said the painting, with its triplicate sexual organs, was “an advertisement against circumcision,” and humorously described it as “Variations on an Old theme on the Source of Russian Architecture,” referring to his three penises, which resembled Russian onion-shaped domes. (There are actually five penises in the painting; as a framing device, Neel placed a half-nude of Gould, each with just a single member, on either side of the central figure.) Gould was not a fan of the painting, which he called “grotesque,” and “not really a nude,” because I insisted on a cigarette holder.” (Also phallic.) He later called it an “underground masterpiece” and accurately predicted it would one day hang in the Whitney.
Neel’s John Perreault (1972) is a clever spin on the classic Matisse-style female odalisque. The portrait came about when Perreault, a curator and critic, invited Neel to participate in a “male nude” show. He was hoping she would contribute her notorious Gould portrait, but Neel insisted on painting something new, and asked him to take off his clothes and lie on the sofa, sketching him first in chalk. The result, with Perreault’s carefully rendered genitalia anchoring the canvas, evokes Manet’s Olympia. As Perrault later put it, “She captured my inner faun.”
Neel’s portrait of her daughter, Isabetta, (1934/35) is in its way even more disturbing than her portrait of Gould, and far more poignant. The painting was done when Isabetta briefly visited Neel at her summer cottage in Belmar. It was the first time Neel had seen her daughter since she was a two-year old toddler and was taken back to Havana by Neel’s husband, the renowned Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez.
It was also Neel’s first nude of a family member, and its apparent lack of any semblance of typical maternal instinct is striking. She captured Isabetta in an understandably defensive, if not defiant, pose, hands on hips, hips thrust forward. For Neel, it was an important work. She made an effort to preserve it, having it photographed by her lover, Kenneth Doolittle. And when Doolittle, in a jealous rage, destroyed it, along with much of Neel’s other work, she recreated the portrait from scratch. Painted long before Sally Mann photographed her own nude children, the portrait of Isabetta was considered indecent by galleries, who for many years refused to show it, referring to it as “Lolita.”
Neel clearly had fun with her portrait of porn star and performance artist Annie Sprinkle (1982), which ironically, given Sprinkle’s métier, is the only non-nude portrait in the show. In it, Sprinkle sports a topless and bottomless leather corset, which clearly reveals her pierced labia, along with garters, sheer black stockings, and high heels. Sprinkle had offered the artist an array of possible costumes, but, as she put it, Neel picked the “fetish” look.”
Neel’s transcendent quality as an artist was her relentless honesty in portraying her models. Neel’s paintings, whether naked, partially clothed, or clothed, are incisive psychological portraits: for Neel painting nudes was a direct path to capturing her subjects’ essential truth. As this show amply indicates, Neel not only turned contemporary portraiture inside out, she fundamentally transformed the nude, both male and female — whether male odalisques or pregnant women — with her genre-bending depictions of both genders.
Phoebe Hoban is New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).