Progression of Art
This early work depicts Neel's husband, the painter Carlos Enríquez, a year after they were married. The portrait displays many of the stylistic and compositional features evident in her mature work. It is clear, however, that Neel was still evolving as an artist. The face, with its distracted features, looks past the edge of the frame, as if focused on a faraway thought. The background here is much darker and the features more idealized than in Neel's later portraits (although, after all, this was her lover). Interest in psychological depth, while evident here, would be fully mastered in her later work.
The pair met in 1924 during a summer painting course in Pennsylvania. He was expelled due to lack of participation; Neel left the program with him. Enríquez returned to Havana in the fall, but the couple carried on their romance through letters. His wealthy family disapproved of Neel and his desire to be an artist (one can only imagine what they thought of her professional ambitions).
Oil on Canvas - Private Collection
Neel's passionate interest in left-wing politics is evident in her portrayal of Communist activist and union organizer Pat Whalen, whom she painted when she was involved with the WPA, part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Here, Whalen is portrayed as the archetypal blue-collar worker. He looks up from a copy of the Daily Worker (the official newspaper of the US communist party), his fists clenched in an expression of resolve and determination. Hallmarks of the artist's personal style are abundantly evident here: the use of flat, unmixed color, the expressive brushstroke, and particular care with the features of the sitter's face and hands that convey a deeper psychology. Neel once observed, "people are the greatest and profoundest key to an era." Here, honing in on a single subject, she articulates the intensity of a struggle that affected millions of Americans in the 1930s and beyond: the struggle for worker's rights.
Oil, Ink, and Newspaper on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art
Dominican Boys on 108th Street
Neel moved from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in 1938. The Village, she felt, was too full of pretentious bohemians. She moved in with the Puerto Rican musician Jose Santiago and began to paint many portraits of friends and neighbors. The two boys here are not like the cherubic innocents seen in many traditional portraits of children. They are nattily dressed like men, not boys, and come across as tough and streetwise. While they are Hispanic, Neel neither plays down nor stereotypes this element. Unlike many of Neel's other portraits, in which backgrounds are typically minimal, the details of the urban landscape are clearly rendered here. Neighborhood residents linger and chat on a stoop, advertising posters peel off the wall of a corner shop, and a green graffiti tag reading 'Felipe' is clearly visible. In this respect, many of her paintings from Spanish Harlem recall the aesthetics of American documentary photographers such as Berenice Abbott and Dorothea Lange. While many portraits (including Neel's) have a universal or timeless quality to them, these two boys are distinctly of a specific time and place.
Oil on Canvas - Tate Modern (London, UK)
Some of Neel's most impactful paintings focus on the people closest to her. This portrait of her son, Hartley, is one of the most famous. Though there is strength and confidence in his pose, with arms and legs akimbo, there is also vulnerability, as well as a weary hardness in Hartley's features. He seems to be preoccupied, or lost in thought, as evidenced by the fact that his gaze avoids that of the viewer. As in many of her portraits, the periphery of the frame is unfinished. This focuses our attention on the central details of the image, for example, the rendering of the shadows on his shirt and pants, which lend them an almost photorealistic quality, and the bold, dark outlines of the body and face. Hartley was Neel's son with the documentary filmmaker Sam Brody, a difficult and sometimes physically abusive man. Struggling to support her family, Neel depended on welfare - and even shoplifted occasionally - to make ends meet. A firsthand knowledge of hard times radiates through Hartley's stern expression, but the restless energy in his lanky form suggests possibility, as opposed to resignation. Neel's expert brushwork, here at its best, lends an immediacy to the figure that makes it look as if it might get up and walk. Hartley's son, Andrew, went on to produce a documentary film about his grandmother in 2007.
Oil on Canvas - National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
One of Neel's best-known works, this portrait of the legendary figure contrasts dramatically with the glamorous image Warhol cultivated for himself. His eyes are closed, suggesting sadness, and discomfort with being looked at (Warhol was famously sensitive about his looks). Without the spiky white wig, sunglasses, and black turtleneck shirt, and without the admirers, celebrities, and hangers-on, he appears vulnerable and old. In 1968, two years before the famous Pop icon sat for this painting, he was shot three times (with a gun) by Valerie Solanus after refusing to produce her play. Alone and shirtless, against a spare background that emphasizes his isolation, Warhol's pink flesh contrasts with the green shadows on his face and body. Large scars across his torso, with the corset he wore to support his damaged abdominal muscles clearly visible, reveal the enduring evidence of that attempt on his life. Here, Warhol's public persona as an immortal icon of cool falls away and he is revealed as a fragile human being. Evidence of Neel's mastery as a portraitist, the work rejects the superficial ways in which we perform identity and assess power, and suggests an alternate model for gaging the human condition: empathy.
Oil and Acrylic on Linen - Whitney Museum of American Art
Neel was one of the first (if not the first) octogenarian woman to exhibit a portrait of herself as a nude. Neel began the self-portrait in her mid-seventies, abandoned it, and returned to it five years later when she was invited to take part in an exhibition of self-portraits at the Harold Reed Gallery in New York in 1980. It depicts Neel in the nude, sitting on a striped chair in her studio. The details of the floor and walls give way to negative space after forming a kind of halo around her. White hair, wrinkles, and sagging stomach (signs aging women are taught to conceal or hide) appear matter-of-factly at the center of the work. She is the clear focus of the painting. She wears only her glasses, and holds a paintbrush in one hand and a cloth in the other. Her steady gaze meets ours, and suggests self-acceptance, even confidence. While of course the female nude is one of the most popular subjects in art, scenes of older nude women as anything but the subject of ridicule are exceedingly rare. In this path-breaking self-portrait, Neel breaks a cardinal rule in Western art, wearing the evidence of her eighty years without shame and as a truly radical artist, at the very top of her game.
Oil on Canvas - David Zwirner Gallery (New York)