Following its run at the Met, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will present the first comprehensive museum survey of work by American artist Alice Neel (1900-1984) on the West Coast. This retrospective positions Neel as one of the 20th century’s most radical painters–one who championed social justice, and held a longstanding commitment to humanist principles that inspired both her art and her life. Featuring a multitude of Neel’s paintings, drawings, and watercolors, as well as a rarely seen film—unique to the de Young’s presentation—the de Young museum will be the only West Coast venue for this revolutionary exhibition and will include works associated with the artist's visits to the Bay Area.
“Though Alice Neel called New York City her home, much of her persona and art, overflowing with uncompromising humanism and regard for all people, aligns deeply with the spirit of San Francisco,” stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Neel visited the city a few times in her lifetime, creating a number of works which will be on view in our presentation at the de Young. It is with much delight that we welcome Neel back to the Bay through her resounding paintings.”
This exhibition spans the entirety of Neel’s career, from her professional debut in Cuba in the 1920s and her work as part of the W.P.A in the 1930s; through her commitment to centering the figure at a time when abstraction was ascendant, in the 1940s and 1950s; her resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s; and the emergence of her “late style” in the 1980s. Besides foregrounding her often under-recognized artistic accomplishments, Alice Neel: People Come First showcases Neel as an artist who engaged with progressive politics throughout her lifetime.
Neel spent the majority of her life in New York City, where she painted countless portraits of the diverse, resilient, and passionate people she encountered there. The exhibition includes portraits of Feminist, Civil Rights, and political leaders, activists, queer cultural figures, mothers, visibly pregnant women, musicians, nude figures, and many others, all of which illuminate Neel’s profound humanist principles.
“Alice Neel dedicated her practice to portraying both people and moments in life that have often been erased or forgotten through time,” says Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Whether portraying the strength and struggles of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem, the labors of pregnancy and motherhood, or a generation of creatives devastated by the AIDS crisis, her works are unflinching in their honesty and radical in their interpretation.”
The exhibition’s presentation at the de Young is divided into nine sections, drawing upon seven decades of Neel’s output. Working in a range of genres, she considered her “pictures of people” to be historical records of the time in which they were made. The exhibition will also include her accomplishments in other styles, specifically still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes.
The de Young’s presentation will also include a section dedicated to Neel and San Francisco. Neel made two trips to the city to visit her son Hartley in 1967 and 1969. Hartley was then living with his future wife Ginny, who assisted Neel with stretching canvases during her visits. It was during this time that Neel produced a piece entitled Ginny in Blue Shirt (1969). In dialogue with the finished work will be a rarely seen silent film showing Neel in the process of painting Ginny in Blue Shirt, captured by her son Hartley.
Also distinct to the de Young’s presentation are select works by Neel juxtaposed with selected works drawn from the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including those by artists that Neel herself admired. This gallery will shine a light on the myriad of ways the artist intersected with, and also diverged from, art historical precedent.
Alice Neel: People Come First will be on view from March 12 through July 10, 2022, at the de Young museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was co-curated by Kelly Baum, the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, and Randall Griffey, Curator, Modern & Contemporary Art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The de Young’s presentation is coordinated by Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.