The Eclectic Lives Behind Alice Neel’s Portraits

My introduction to the painter Alice Neel was a screen print that hung on the living room wall of my grandparents’ home in Woodstock, N.Y. — a provocative portrait of Neel’s pouting granddaughter lounging on a striped chair. That portrait then moved within my family, to Minneapolis, San Francisco and, finally, to my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — down the street from where Neel painted and lived —  where it now hangs on my wall.

I discovered last weekend, when I saw Neel’s stunning retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that the same striped chair has appeared in many of her paintings. The many portraits in the exhibition, “Alice Neel: People Come First,” were of Neel’s friends and lovers, or of well-known artists, activists, critics, scholars — including many radicals my grandmother admired, among them Mike Gold, an author and activist, and Linda Nochlin, a celebrated feminist art historian.

I became curious about Neel’s subjects and learned about their lives from their obituaries in The New York Times. Below is a sampling.

Jackie Curtis, Performer Who Worked With Warhol

Jackie Curtis was a playwright, director and performer who acted in Andy Warhol films like “Bad” (1977), a comedy about a hairdresser who runs an electrolysis parlor in her home, and the 1971 satire “Women in Revolt.” He also wrote screenplays for Warhol, including “Flesh” (1968), about a hustler working on the streets of New York City.

He began to write plays in the late 1960s, and often took the lead female role in them.

Read his obituary here.

Andy Warhol, Pop Artist and Cultural Icon

Andy Warhol’s paintings and prints of presidents, movie stars and soup cans made him one of the most famous artists in the world.

Neel’s portrait of him, “nude from the waist up, revealing his scars and the surgical corset he wore after he was shot by Valerie Solanas,” as Phoebe Hoban wrote in the introduction to “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty” (2010), demonstrates the collaborative exchange Neel had with her subjects.

Read his obituary here.

James Farmer, Civil Rights Giant

James Farmer was a principal founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and the last survivor of the “Big Four” who shaped the civil rights struggle in the United States in the mid-1950s and ’60s.

His main colleagues in the civil rights movement were the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young of the National Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the N.A.A.C.P.

Read his obituary here.

Linda Nochlin, Feminist Art Historian

Linda Nochlin was a celebrated art historian whose feminist approach permanently altered her field.

She earned a place of honor in both art-historical and art-world circles in January 1971 with the groundbreaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

Her answer examined assumptions behind the question, enumerated the centuries of institutional and social conventions that had militated against women’s succeeding in the arts, and discredited what she called the myth of innate genius.

Read her obituary here.

Henry Geldzahler, Critic, Public Official
and Contemporary Art’s Champion

Henry Geldzahler was a curator, critic and public official whose enthusiastic advocacy of contemporary art made his name synonymous with the art scene in New York for three decades.

He began his career as a curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the age of 33 he put together the museum’s sweeping centennial exhibition, “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” a highly personal selection of 408 works by 43 artists that thrust the staid Met into the swirling currents of modern art and led one journalist to call him “the most powerful and controversial art curator alive.” He excluded Alice Neel from the exhibition.

Read his obituary here.

David Bourdon, Art Critic With Expertise
in Modern Genres

David Bourdon was a critic who was closely involved in the innovative Manhattan art world of the early 1960s and was one of the early writers on the Minimalist movement.

Among his books were studies of the artists Christo (1972), Alexander Calder (1980) and Andy Warhol (1989). His book on Warhol was a detailed insider’s account of the artist’s career in which he reported having assisted Warhol in producing a series of his 1963 Elvis Presley silk-screen paintings. A friend of the artists Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, he also wrote about the Earth Art movement in the late 1960s and ’70s. He was a past president of the United States section of the International Association of Art Critics and an arts editor at Vogue from 1983 to 1986.

Read his obituary here.

Geoffrey Hendricks, Fluxus Artist

Geoffrey Hendricks and Bici Forbes had been married for years and had two children when they faced up to a conundrum.

“By the time of our 10th wedding anniversary,” Mr. Hendricks recalled years later, “which is June 24, 1971, it was like: ‘Well, what should we do? Because we’re both gay.’”

Hendricks was an artist who was part of the boundary-stretching Fluxus movement, so it was perfectly in character when he and his wife, the artist known as Nye Ffarrabas, decided to turn their disunion into performance art. On their 10th anniversary, they staged what has become known as the Flux Divorce in their Manhattan home.

Read his obituary here.

Alice Childress, Novelist Who Drew Themes
From Black Life

Alice Childress was an actress and a writer of plays and novels, including “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich.”

In a review of “Hero” in The New York Times in 1973, the playwright Ed Bullins wrote: “There are too few books that convince us that reading is one of the supreme gifts of being human. Alice Childress, in her short, brilliant study of a 13-year-old Black heroin user, achieves this feat in a masterly way.”

Read her obituary here.

Michael Gold, Author and Activist

Michael Gold, Neel’s friend, lover and mentor, was the author of the novel “Jews Without Money” and other works of social protest. He was a columnist for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and a founding editor of New Masses, a copy of which is visible on the bottom left of Neel’s portrait. The title of Neel’s retrospective at the Met comes from a 1950 article about her that Gold wrote for The Daily Worker.

“But for me, people come first,” he quoted Neel as saying. “I think I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being in my portraits.”

Read his obituary here.

Cindy Nemser, Advocate for Women Artists

Cindy Nemser was an art critic and historian who, half a century ago, began calling out sexism in the art world, decrying the way women artists were treated and how their work was evaluated.

Nemser was already writing for arts publications in 1969 when someone invited her to an early meeting of Women Artists in Revolution, a New York coalition that pushed back against the marginalization of women in the art world. At the time few women had gallery representation or were being shown in major museums.

Read her obituary here.

Benny Andrews, Painter of Life in the South

Benny Andrews was a figural expressionistic painter and teacher whose work drew on his African-American roots in Georgia.

He was a vivid storyteller who used memories of his childhood in the segregated South to create narrative-based works that addressed human suffering and injustice. Over his lifetime, his social concerns ranged from the civil rights struggle and the antiwar movement to the Holocaust, poverty and the forced relocation of American Indians.

Read his obituary here.

Erica Ackerberg is a photo editor on the Obituaries and Books desks at The New York Times.

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