No one knows what motivates a portrait artist to choose her subjects.
Alice Neel (1900-1984), whose work is currently on display in a career-long retrospective, “Alice Neel: People Come First,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Aug. 1, was perhaps best known for her portraits of friends and neighbors, many famous, others obscure but no less fascinating.
The longtime New Yorker’s catalogue included portraits of fellow artists, politicians like Ed Koch and Bella Abzug, writers and poets, as well as transvestites, residents of poorer neighborhoods where Neel lived like Spanish Harlem, East Harlem, African-American activists, the Cuban avant-garde, naked pregnant women and Communist leaders and thinkers.
In a body of work that reaches from the Great Depression to Andy Warhol’s New York, Jewish subjects pop up again and again. From her 1936 painting “Nazis Murder Jews” –depicting an anti-Fascist May Day parade in New York City — to later paintings of Dachau survivors, German-born refugees in the US, Jewish editors, art historians and curators, Neel made Jews part of her catalogue.
Although not Jewish herself, the father of her youngest child Hartley was the Jewish photographer Sam Brody, with whom she had a 15-year relationship from 1940-1955.
One of Neel’s sitters, retired museum director and curator Tom Freudenheim, told the Jewish Week in a Zoom interview that “Nazis Murder Jews” was tremendously important to her and that she was disappointed that she did not get notice and acknowledgement for having taken the stance she did when she painted that work. “She felt that was an important painting and no one cared,” said Freudenheim.
Like “Nazis Murder Jews,” Neel’s paintings do not sugarcoat life’s many difficulties. The 1939 painting “Childbirth” depicts Goldie Goldwasser, her Jewish roommate at the maternity ward where her own son Richard was born. Neel’s biographer Phoebe Hoban writes how the painting’s “contorted body,” with its “bruised eyes and darkened nipples,” “depicts the vestiges of the harrowing labor.” Neel has been noted as one of the first female artists to depict pregnant women naked, an inversion of many works by male artists which see women as sexual, not maternal. Painting a Jewish woman who has given birth in 1939, a time when Jewish life in Europe was on the verge of destruction, seems of significance.
Even a 1965 painting, “Fuller Brush Man,” has Jewish content that might not seem obvious.
The sitter was Dewald Strauss, a Dachau survivor whose office was near Neel’s 107th Street apartment. In a talk for the Met, his son Jerry Strauss said that a few years after he arrived in America in 1942, his father joined the American army and fought in World War II, and was injured less than 155 miles from where he had been born in Germany. He received a Purple Heart for his service. In 2010, Neel recalled: “He had to make twenty-five sales a day for Fuller Brush or he would lose his job. But he was so happy to be in America.”
The painting depicts a man who appears outwardly cheerful; closer examination yields a sense of despair. The way in which Neel captures both emotions typifies her approach to her subjects, depicting them honestly, without sentimentalizing or fetishizing them.
Other notable depictions of Jews in the Met show include a 1952 painting of Mike Gold (nee Itzak Granich), author of the 1930 novel “Jews Without Money,” who supported Neel’s work in his Marxist magazine New Masses, and curator Henry Geldzahler. Scion of a Belgian-Jewish family, Geldzahler became the first curator of 20th century art at the Met and cultural affairs commissioner in New York during the Koch administration.
Two Jewish women who played an important role in building and rehabilitating the reputations of female artists, Cindy Nemser and Linda Nochlin, are portrayed in the Met show. Nemser wrote that her first understanding of sex discrimination came when she was denied a bat mitzvah in the late 1940s. She went on to found the Feminist Art Journal and curate two seminal exhibits on women artists. In a blog about the process of sitting for Neel, she recalls what Neel told her about her approach: “I leave myself and go out to that person and when I come back there’s a desert. You know what it is for me? It’s an esthetic trip like an LSD trip.”
Linda Nochlin grew up in Crown Heights in what she described as “a secular, leftist, intellectual Jewish family, like so many in the neighborhood. Intellectual achievement, creation or appreciation of the arts — literature, music, painting, dance — were considered the highest goals, along with social justice.”
‘Wear whatever you want to wear,’ an annoyed Neel told a portrait subject. Apparently, she resented the implication that she only painted provocative nudes.
Nochlin was a curator, an art history professor at Vassar, Yale and the Institute of Fine Arts, and the author of the pioneering 1971 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” in ArtNews. In painting Nochlin and her daughter Daisy, Neel was consciously inserting herself into the long artistic lineage of mother-and-child paintings, but with one professionally accomplished mother depicting another.
Freudenheim recalls his experience sitting for the 1979 portrait, which is not in the show. Freudenheim was working for the National Endowment for the Arts when he appeared on a panel at the New School. Neel passed him a note asking if he’d sit for her. He remembers a phone conversation discussing what he should wear, and her annoyed answer: “Wear whatever you want to wear.” Apparently, she resented the implication that she only painted provocative nudes.
He doesn’t know why she chose to paint him, but he has a clue: After one of the sittings, Freudenheim’s wife Leslie asked Neel if she was interested in painting her as well, and the artist said no. “Your mouth is too big for your face, I could never paint you,” he recalls her saying. Freudenheim believes that Neel was interested in how her subjects “struck her visually,” adding, “whether the curators say that or not.”
Though Neel may have chosen Freudenheim because “she just liked my look,” her interest shifted after she learned that he was German born and his family had escaped the Nazis. She proposed painting him in a crucifixion scene. That painting never happened, but the episode suggests that Neel saw in certain Jewish faces a complex legacy of suffering and survival.