In 1962, Alice Neel (1900 – 1984) moved to her final apartment and studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Delimited by what was visible through a north-facing window, this scene in 107th and Broadway (1976) excludes the streets below that give the painting its title. Indeed, this absence animates the composition, whose dominant feature is the crisp shadow cast by the cusped moldings and straight edges of Neel’s apartment block on the whitewashed building across the street. The presence of people, too, is discernable only indirectly through the half-opened windows and partially shuttered blinds. Capturing the effects of sharp light on a hot summer day, this window onto the world becomes the occasion for a painterly exploration of color, form and structure.
Photographed as Part of the Exhibit, Alice Neel: People Come First, Which Continues Through August 1st, 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
John I. H. Bauer, head of the Brooklyn Museum‘s Department of painting and sculpture from 1936 to 1952, here appears seated in an interior space, perhaps his office. His body, cropped at the head and ankle, fills the frame. Painted in 1974, Alice Neel captured idiosyncrasies such as his slightly rumpled suit, wrinkled face, and veiny hands. One of her guiding principles as a portraitist was, in her words, that “every person is a new universe unique with its own laws.“
Over the course of a career that stretched from the 1920s to the 1980s, Alice Neel painted portraits of hundreds of friends, family members, lovers, artists art historians, writers, and political activists, believing that “people are the greatest and profoundest key to an era.” Seeking to express psychology above absolute physical likeness, she often used exaggerated colors and expressive brushstrokes and eliminated extraneous details in order to capture the inner lives of her subjects.
Neel was a longtime supporter of leftist causes. In the painting of Pat Whalen (1935), she depicts the Communist activist and union organizer for the longshoremen of Baltimore as a paragon of social justice. Whalen’s creased face and expression — along with a copy of the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party USA, resting beneath his large, clenched — suggest both a noble archetype of the blue-collar worker and an all-consuming commitment to the working man’s cause.