From xxxxxx <[email protected]>
Subject Alice Neel’s Communism Is Essential to Her Art. You Can See It in the ‘Battlefield’ of Her Paintings, and Her Ruthless Portrait of Her Son
Date April 27, 2021 12:05 AM
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[ The great painters survey at the Met shows how she believed in
art as way of intervening in history.] [[link removed]]

[[link removed]]


Ben Davis
April 15, 2021
Artnet News
[[link removed]]

[[link removed]]
[[link removed]]
* [[link removed]]

_ The great painter's survey at the Met shows how she believed in art
as way of intervening in history. _

Banner for “Alice Neel: People Come First” outside the
Metropolitan Museum., Photo by Ben Davis // Artnet News


Alice Neel painted “the human comedy.”

It’s a phrase she repeated often in interviews and in text,
throughout her life. It is the title of one of the sections of
“Alice Neel: People Come First,
[[link removed]]”
her outstanding and moving retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of

In one sense, what she meant is obvious. Memorable and interesting
characters abound in her paintings, running from her many lovers to
the luminaries of New York’s Depression-era political and literary
Left; from art celebrities like Andy Warhol to her acquaintances in
the East Harlem neighborhood where she toiled in obscurity for
decades; from the feminist activists and critics who championed her
work in the ‘60s and ’70s to her own self, shown naked, at 80,
paintbrush in hand and gazing skeptically out at the viewer as if
sizing them up—one of the most indelible of all 20th-century

Alice Neel, Self-Portrait (1980). Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet
The text in the Met’s “The Human Comedy” gallery explains that
she meant the phrase as a reference to French author Honoré de
Balzac’s story collection _La Comédie humaine_, “which examines
the causes and effects of human action on nineteenth-century French
society.” It notes that Neel wanted to chronicle “suffering and
loss, but also strength and endurance,” as Balzac did.

Which is… fine, as far as it goes, and falls in line with the
show’s framing of Neel as an “anarchic humanist.” But the
“effects of human action” is a pretty vague phrase. As opposed to
what? The effects of the movement of the planets?

Installation view of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News
The truth is that the words “the human comedy” had a lasting
magic for Alice Neel because Alice Neel thought of herself as a
Communist intellectual. Every artist with an interest in Marxism would
have gotten the reference, because almost all of Communist aesthetic
theory looked for legitimacy, in one way or another, to Marx and
Engels’s approving remarks
[[link removed]] on
Balzac’s _La Comédie humaine_.

The authors of the _Communist Manifesto_ thought Balzac captured not
just the spirit of his time, but provided a portrait of the
pathologies of bourgeois society, the toll that money took on human
relations (despite Balzac’s aristocratic personal politics).

Alice Neel’s Pregnant Woman (1971) at the Metropolitan Museum. Photo
by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News
Interviewed by the Yale Press podcast
[[link removed]],
the exhibitions’s curators, Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey, seem
very concerned with emphasizing that Neel’s politics were
“independent,” “non-dogmatic,” and that her affinities for
Communist ideas softened as she aged. Which may be true: Times change,
people change, art and politics and how they intersect change.

“You see, it’s not so much that I am pro-Russia as that I am
pro-détente,” she said onstage
[[link removed]] towards the end of her
life. But she also said [[link removed]],
around the same time, “Reagan has said the government doesn’t owe
anybody anything. In the Soviet Union you get free medical
care—everything is free. There the government owes you

In 1981, just three years before she died, she contributed to a
fundraiser for the Reference Center for Marxist Studies, a depository
for Communist Party history located in the headquarters of the
attenuated CPUSA. The same year she actually did a show _in
Moscow_ at the Artists’ Union, organized by Philip Bonosky, the
Moscow correspondent for the _Daily World_, which was the successor
to the CP’s _Daily Worker._ (She had painted him three decades
earlier, when he was editor at the Communist magazine _Masses &

Alice Neel, Phillip Bonosky (1948). Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet
[[link removed].] at
the age of 82 by art historian Patricia Hills, Neel was still making
the case for the significance of her portraiture by referencing
Vladimir Lenin’s respect for Balzac’s _The Human Comedy_ (she
kept a poster of Lenin in her apartment all her life, according to
Phoebe Hoban’s 2010 biography) as well as Hungarian Marxist Georg
Lukács’s advocacy for Thomas Mann.

Neither Lenin nor Lukács were names you brought up in the 1980s to
win points for being with-it, artistically or politically.

Rather than trying to fit Neel into the framework of a rose-colored
contemporary progressivism, it seems much more interesting—and more
accurate—to consider how the artist’s actual, passionately felt,
difficult allegiances shaped her: the sacrifices she made in her life;
the specifics of her art; and her relation to the New Left feminist
movements of the 1960s and ’70s that pulled her from obscurity, and
that now probably overdetermine the reading of her work still.


Born into small-town Pennsylvania respectability in 1900, Alice Neel
went to study art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women
looking for a more interesting life. “I came out of that little town
the most depressed virgin who ever lived,” she remembers in a 2008
documentary [[link removed]] directed by her
grandson. She met and married Carlos Enríquez, a soon-to-be-important
Cuban painter, and travelled to Cuba in 1926, where the sight of
poverty in pre-revolutionary Havana radicalized her.

Alice Neel, Futility of Effort (1930). Photo by Ben Davis  //
 Artnet News
Returning to New York, she suffered the loss of her first child,
Santillana, to diphtheria—the subject of the ghostly _Futility of
Effort_ (1930), later featured in a 1936 issue of the journal of the
Artists Union, _Art Front_, retitled as _Poverty_. The couple would
separate, and Enríquez would take their second child, Isabetta, back
to Cuba.

New York’s Greenwich Village was where Neel found her most lasting
community, in the demimonde that swirled together leftist radicals and
artistic strivers amid the hardship brought on by the Great

Alice Neel, Kenneth Fearing (1935) at the Metropolitan Museum. Photo
by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News
When the New Deal’s art projects
[[link removed]] started
up in ’33, Neel seized the opportunity as a lifeline, painting a
canvas every six weeks on government wages, her eye turning for a time
to urban scenes and public demonstrations in the mode of the day.

(An anecdote she liked to tell later in life is that Harold Rosenberg,
the critic of abstraction, schemed his way onto the government payroll
by submitting two Neel paintings as his own, before becoming an art

Installation view of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News
The Communist Party was enthusiastic about the New Deal Arts Projects
and a force in pushing for their expansion, and Neel soon joined
“the Party.” It might surprise us now that a figure of Neel’s
scrappy, bohemian independence would be drawn to the CP, even given
the fact that she joined in ’35, when the USSR’s foreign policy
needs aligned with Roosevelt’s agenda, and the turn to the Popular
Front opened the doors for fellow-traveling artists of all kinds.

Alice Neel, Nazis Murder Jews (1936). Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet
But Cold War dogma and our knowledge of the actual evils of the Soviet
system cloud our assessment of the Communist Party’s on-the-ground
profile at the time. Its opposition to US social order led it to
engage with both racism and sexism in ways that mainstream
institutions often wouldn’t. As Andrew Hemingway writes in his great
history of the time, _Artists on the Left_, Neel “is representative
of that type of woman artist and intellectual who gravitated to the CP
because—whatever its limitations—it offered the most sustained
critique available of class, racial, and sexual inequality.”

Alice Neel’s Death of Mother Bloor (1951) at the Metropolitan
Museum. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
Neel’s role model would have been someone like Ella Reeve Bloor
[[link removed]],
aka Mother Bloor, the most well-known female leader in the CPUSA in
the ‘20s and ‘30s. Born 1862, Bloor was a formidable organizer who
supported six children while divorcing and marrying as she pleased.
She was a comrade of Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair, and her labor
journalism inspired Woody Guthrie’s song
[[link removed]] about the
Ludlow Massacre. In her sixties, during the Great Depression, Bloor
toured the Great Plains with her son, organizing farmers.

Detail of Alice Neel’s Death of Mother Bloor (1951) at the
Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
Neel painted Mother Bloor’s funeral in a 1951 work. She is pictured,
sainted, in a coffin as a multiracial crowd of mourners files past. A
wreath above her head reads “COMMUNIST,” the word “PARTY”
vanishing as it wraps around a bouquet of roses.


The curators of “Alice Neel: People Come First” cite approvingly a
line by Neel saying that she was “never a good Communist,” because
she hated “bureaucracy” and the “meetings used to drive me
crazy.” But a distaste for bureaucracy or political meetings
doesn’t mean she didn’t imbibe the party line. (It just means she
was an artist.)

In the very same interview Neel also stresses that “it [the
Communist Party] affected my work quite a bit.”

It’s one thing to join the Communist Party at a time when Communist
ideas were in vogue with the artistic mainstream, and capitalism was
in a crisis that was plain for all to see. Many did in the Depression
years. But Neel remained faithful to the movement long after.

Alice Neel, Alice Childress (1950). Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, she studied philosophy at the Jefferson
School for Social Research, an adult education school in New York run
by the Communist Party. She delivered some of her first slide lectures
about her art there.

One of her teachers, V.J. Jerome, chair of the Party’s Cultural
Commission, was convicted under the Smith Act for his 1950 pamphlet
“Grasp the Weapon of Culture!,
[[link removed]]”
which described mass culture as anti-human and a narcotic polluting
the masses, arguing the need for a revolutionary art to bring down
capitalism. Neel made sure to visit Jerome to show support after he
was released from jail.

Installation view of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at the
Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
This was the high tide of McCarthyism, when most others of the
so-called “New York Intellectuals
[[link removed]]”
were abandoning their earlier, ‘30s-era Marxist commitments and
turning hard towards Cold War liberalism and anti-Communism.

And yet the very title of the Met show, “People Come First,” comes
from a line in a 1950 _Daily Worker_ interview with Mike Gold, the
foremost propagandizer of proletarian art in the United States. Even
as Abstract Expressionism was being coronated at MoMA, Gold had quoted
Neel: “I am against abstract and non-objective art because such art
shows a hatred of human beings.”

(Incidentally, when figuration reemerged in the art world in the late
’60s, it was in the form of Photorealism—and Neel hated that too.
She argued that it also sinned by treating humans the same as things,
replicating capitalist ideology. She thought special attention should
be reserved for the human. Her particular Marxist aesthetic,
therefore, gives insight into the ways she set her subjects off from
less defined backgrounds and the meaning she gave to the expressive,
painterly qualities of her paintings in that era.)

Alice Neel’s Mike Gold (1951) at the Metropolitan Museum. Photo by
Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
Gold championed Neel as a “pioneer of socialist-realism in American
painting,” and she returned the love with a portrait from 1951. His
weathered, tan features appear thoughtful and ready for debate.
Depicted on the table before Gold in Neel’s painting is a copy of
the Communist intellectual journal _Masses_.

Detail of Alice Neel’s Mike Gold. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet
Beneath that is a newspaper. In what I take to be a deliberate
suggestion of Neel’s continuing alignment with Gold’s output as a
writer and propagandist, she has placed her own signature as if it is
a part of the newspaper.

Neel had moved to Spanish Harlem in 1938 with her lover, the singer
José Santiago Negrón (whom she had met when she was 35 and he a
decade younger). For her, the paintings she did of neighbors,
acquaintances, and comrades from the Puerto Rican community weren’t
just sentimental or picturesque. Works such as _Mercedes
Arroyo_, _The Spanish Family_, and _T.B. Harlem_ made their debut
in a show at the Communist-controlled New Playwrights Theatre, with an
essay by Gold, and were presented explicitly as part of a Communist
political-cultural project, bound up with the Party’s advocacy—and
sometimes fetishization—of Third World struggle.

Alice Neel, The Spanish Family (1943). Photo by Ben Davis  //
 Artnet News.
Gold quoted Neel like so: “East Harlem is like a battlefield of
humanism, and I am on the side of the people there, and they inspire
my painting.”


In the popular imagination, the story of the ‘60s New Left movements
is that they raised issues of race and gender that the Old Left’s
idealization of a white male factory worker had ignored. But it’s a
little more complicated than that.

An interesting twist highlighted by recent museum shows reconsidering
this period is that, as it turns out, the artists who were adopted as
the most vital, heroic exemplars by the insurgent ‘60s social
movements had, in fact, often been forged by the Old Left artistic
scene. It was in terminally uncool Social Realism that the idea of an
art that honored the experiences of the suffering, oppressed masses
had been preserved and could be picked up again when new social
movements rebelled against the reining formalism.

Charles White, the masterful social realist
[[link removed]] who
was affiliated with the CPUSA until 1956 and was nurtured in some of
the same Communist spaces and periodicals as Neel, was an example for
the Black Power generation. Neel was an example for Women’s

Cover of Time magazine featuring Alice Neel painting of Kate Millet,
on display at the Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Ben Davis  //
 Artnet News.
The Communist Party had all but imploded after Khrushchev’s secret
speech in 1956 revealing Stalin’s crimes. Without the new feminist
movement, there would have been no Neel revival.

Neel, in turn, helped shape the image of the ascendant movement, doing
a steely painting of writer Kate Millett for the 1970 cover
of _Time_ magazine on “The Politics of Sex,” just as Women’s
Liberation was moving into mainstream consciousness.

Alice Neel, Cindy Nemser and Chuck (1975). Photo by Ben Davis  //
 Artnet News.
She painted the luminaries of the feminist movement as faces of their
time, just as she had painted the earlier Communist intellectuals: art
historians Linda Nochlin (with daughter Daisy) and Cindy Nemser (nude,
with husband Chuck, also nude), Redstockings founder Irine Peslikis
(described as “Marxist Girl”), and many more.

Alice Neel’s Nancy and the Twins (1971) at the Metropolitan Museum.
Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
Neel also did numerous images of women nursing and pregnant nudes,
among her most celebrated works. Here, her eye for honoring the
realities of ordinary people’s lives hidden beneath bourgeois
ideology met the feminist project of honoring the hidden world of
women’s work beneath the sentimental domestic cliches.

But Neel also had a famously difficult relationship with the Second
Wave of feminism, even as she reveled in its attention and clearly
believed in the importance of Women’s Liberation. Partly, this was
generational. Like Georgia O’Keeffe (though a quarter-century
younger) or Joan Mitchell (though a quarter-century older), Neel had
spent a lifetime trying to escape the stigma of being patronizingly
reviewed as a “lady painter,” and was suspicious of being touted
for her gender.

Alice Neel, Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) (1972) in “Alice Neel:
People Come First” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Ben
Davis  //  Artnet News.
But this was also partly political, inscribed in the very creed that
had allowed her to hack it out all those lonely, unrecognized,
pre-feminist-movement years. She had chosen a life of poverty out of
an ideological belief in solidarity with the working class and the
oppressed. With a combination of insight and narrow-mindedness, she
considered a lot of the preoccupations of the new feminist artists she
encountered to be self-absorbed and trite—in a word,

In 1970, her work was included in the Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda
Nochlin-curated “Women Artists, 1550–1950
[[link removed]]” at
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show had been the product of
actual protests by feminists, who had threatened a Civil Rights
complaint against the museum for not showing women.

Alice Neel, Linda Nochlin and Daisy (1973). Photo by Ben Davis  //
 Artnet News.
Yet reflecting on the show’s reception, Neel was characteristically
salty and dismissive of those who didn’t share her fundamental
political outlook:

What amazed me is that all the woman critics—you see, you are very
respected if you paint your own pussy, as a woman’s libber. But they
didn’t have any respect for being able to see an abused Third World.
So nobody mentioned that I managed to see beyond my pussy politically.
But I thought that was really a good thing if they had a little more


There is ego here: Alice Neel was never shy about saying why her art
was better than anyone else’s. But the judgement flowed directly
from the Marxist theory she used to understand her practice, which
held that capitalist life kept us wallowing in immediate subjective
experiences, unable to generalize and so unable to change the
world. In Georg Lukács’s 1938 essay “Realism in the Balance,”
he had written:

[I]f we are ever going to be able to understand the way in which
reactionary ideas infiltrate our minds, and if we are ever going to
achieve a critical distance from such prejudices, this can only be
accomplished by hard work, by abandoning and transcending the limits
of immediacy, by scrutinizing all subjective experiences and measuring
them against social reality. In short it can only be achieved by a
deeper probing of the world.

You can see how this artistic theory of hard looking would resonate
with Neel’s sense of what a portrait should be. Lukacsian realism
was about neither simply life-like description nor the depiction of
ordinary experiences in an accessible way; it was about art that moved
through the specific case to a revelation of the overall social
context that had shaped its meaning and identity.

Installation view of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
When, in the Hills interview, Neel says that what she values most in
her own art is that she tries to paint “the complete person” but
also, though that depiction, to capture the “spirit of the age,”
it is just such an operation she seems to have in mind.

“The favorite author of Georg Lukács was Thomas Mann,” Neel
continues, “because Mann could see how sick the world was. But the
sickness has now been transformed into junkiness. You see, the
character of this era is its utter lack of values.”

Alice Neel’s Dominican Boys on 108th Street (1955) at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
How seriously did Alice Neel take the mission of her art to capture
its time, which went considerably beyond the personal satisfaction she
got from organizing paint on canvas or communing with her many
interesting sitters?

So seriously that, when it came time to paint the character of the
‘70s and its “utter lack of values,” she would show it in the
face of her own adult son.

Having lost two daughters, Alice Neel raised two sons on welfare, in
poverty, all while committed to making unsellable art. In the 2008
documentary, Richard Neel remembers Alice tolerating a lover, Sam
Brody, who beat him, because she was dependent on him for money and he
flattered her artistic ego. Burned by the dispiriting instability of
their upbringing, both sons would reject her communist and bohemian
values, steering clear of the new movements of the ‘60s even as they
elevated their mother. They became, respectively, a doctor and a
lawyer—as solidly middle class as you can get.

Alice Neel, Richard (1962). Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
She had painted Richard warmly in the handsome _Richard_ (1962),
when he was 24, with five o’clock shadow and a casual sweater.

By the time _Richard_ evolved into the late-period _Richard in the
Era of the Corporation_ (1978-79), the real Richard had become an
ardent Nixon supporter and chief executive council for Pan Am Airways.
In the year she made the painting, Pan Am was okayed by Jimmy
Carter’s Airline Deregulation Act to snap up National Airways for
$437 million.

“There are very few people as right-wing as I am,” Richard says in
the 2008 documentary. His mother would say that _Richard in the Era
of the Corporation_ was her attempt to capture how “the corporation
enslaved all these bright young men.”

Alice Neel, Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978-79). Photo by
Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.
Now 40, Richard is shown again on a chair, this time in suit and tie.
Compared to the earlier composition, this one is one step farther
back, less intimate; the warm brown palette has yielded to a slightly
icy climate.

Splashes of green linger around the mouth. Green veins trace his

Detail of Richard in the Era of the Corporation. Photo by Ben Davis
 //  Artnet News.
The 1979 Richard projects cool assurance, his legs casually crossed as
before—but the foot is suspended at a strained angle. He’s
literally twisted.


Detail of Alice Neel, Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978-79).
Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.

The white patches in the hair in both the figure and his reflection
suggest a man graying into middle age, but also make him look as if he
is fading away or that something is literally missing from him.


Detail of Alice Neel, Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978-79).
Photo by Ben Davis  //  Artnet News.

But it’s his eyes that I notice. Childhood malnourishment had left
Richard’s eyesight damaged. Uniquely among her bespectacled sitters
(compare her own self-portrait from a year later), Neel has given
Richard shark eyes, all pupils. His glasses, strangely left
unfinished, float unevenly around them, agitated halos, as if he were
spellbound or hypnotized.

Neel rightly gets credit for painting aspects of female experience
that hadn’t gotten a lot of play in art before, in her pregnant
nudes and nursing mothers and scenes of childbirth. _Richard in the
Era of the Corporation’s_ depiction of political estrangement
between mother and son is another intimate experience I am not sure
had ever been depicted.

And this painting was telling, not just in terms of capturing a mood
among the Neel family but in terms of capturing the larger zeitgeist.

The story of the backlash against the movements of the 1960s by the
rising generation and the consolidation of corporate hold over life
was indeed the story that defined the decades to come—with so many
horrible consequences.

“I love, fear, and respect people and their struggle,” Neel told
Hills in 1982, “especially in the rat race we live in today,
becoming every moment fiercer, attaining epic proportions where murder
and annihilation are the end.”


Finally, why bother spending so much time on Alice Neel’s Communist

There’s enough Neel to go around in this show: There’s an erotic
Neel; a familial Neel; a Neel as painter of wonky domestic
still-lifes. But clearly we are more comfortable with these aspects of
her work and are embarrassed by the Communism, rendering it as a
soft-focus “radicalism” or classless “feminism” that she
herself would have hated.

The topic is worth lingering on, but not because you need to defend
Communism to defend Marxism or activism. The opposite is closer to the
truth, in my opinion. For the entire period Neel was working, there
were Marxists and activists who were critical of the CP, critical of
the Soviet Union—they were just much less visible than the CP.

But Communism was a motivating passion for Neel. Its sense of destiny
kept her going. Its theory offered a model of intellectualism that was
committed to speaking to ordinary people. It offered critical insights
that weren’t easy to find elsewhere along with tragic blind spots.
(If you are interested in what it felt like to _live_ these
difficult dynamics, Vivian Gornick’s _The Romance of American
[[link removed]] can’t
be beat.)

Neel’s politics were bound up with all that other stuff that made
her remarkable. The art-historical dilemmas they leave us with are
heritage of the fact that the society she was trying to survive and
depict was actually full of awful dilemmas. The best way to honor her
as a painter of difficult truths is by not smoothing these over.

_[Ben Davis has been artnet News's National Art Critic since 2016. He
is the author of '9.5 Theses on Art and Class' (Haymarket, 2013), and
was an editor of 'The Elements of Architecture' (Taschen, 2018), which
began as the catalogue to the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennial.
Recent essays have appeared in the books 'Public Servants: Art and the
Crisis of the Common Good' (MIT Press, 2016) and 'The Future of Public
Space' (Metropolis, 2018). His writings have been featured in
Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, e-Flux Journal, Frieze, New York, The
New York Times, Slate, The Village Voice, and many other venues. In
2019, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab reported that he was one of
the five most influential art critics in the United States, and the
only one to write for an online publication.]_


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