Alice Neel Didn’t Work Alone

Alice Neel received her first museum retrospective in 1974 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Since then, Neel’s captivating portraits have been the subject of numerous exhibitions and publications, including the recently concluded Alice Neel: People Come First at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As this exhibition’s title suggests, Neel’s artistic practice reflected her fundamental interest in humanity. She set out to capture not just a person’s likeness, but their character. However, beyond each subject’s unique individuality, Neel’s portraits have long been regarded as reflections of the communities of which she was a part. Why, then, do studies of Neel to date almost universally overlook her participation in the Alliance of Figurative Artists during the crucial decade of the 1970s?

The Alliance of Figurative Artists was founded in February 1969 to, according to one meeting announcement, “create for figurative art a viable New York scene.” Largely ignored by the city’s museums and galleries as representational art fell out of fashion in the 1960s, figurative painters and sculptors at the time sought opportunities to share their work with like-minded people. Although conceived as a small, informal gathering, nearly 200 artists showed up to the Alliance’s first meeting. Recognizing the potential, the founders identified a formal meeting place — the Educational Alliance — where the group continued to convene every Friday night through the early 1980s. Alliance meetings featured artist lectures, panels, and opportunities to bring work for discussion, and typically coincided with openings at nearby cooperative galleries founded by participating artists. But despite the size and scope of the Alliance, and the involvement of figures like Neel, the group has been virtually lost to art history.

Alice Neel, “Rita and Hubert” (1954) (photograph courtesy Seph Rodney)

Neel was one of only a handful of Alliance artists who achieved substantial success notwithstanding their commitment to figuration. However, narratives of these artists’ lives rarely mention the Alliance, emphasizing their individual perseverance instead. Phoebe Hoban’s biography of Neel is the only publication about the painter to afford her involvement in the group more than a few sentences, but even Hoban devotes barely two pages to the subject. Yet oral histories and archival documents reveal that Neel was an active and well-respected member of the Alliance community. Fellow Alliance artist Philip Pearlstein regularly drove Neel from Harlem to the meetings downtown, where she frequently joined in discussions and spoke on panels. Women artists were especially inspired by Neel, who was among the first women to give solo lectures at the Alliance. Neel also participated in exhibitions organized by Alliance artists at cooperative galleries. Given how little literature on the Alliance exists, the abundance of evidence of Neel’s participation in it illustrates how substantially she contributed to and how much she valued the group.

Neel made an impact on her younger Alliance peers, and in return, they fought for greater exposure for her work. In 1972, when Neel was 72 years old, artist Noah Baen circulated a petition at the Alliance demanding the inclusion of Neel in the next Whitney Annual painting exhibition. Critic Cindy Nemser then distributed a similar petition with the help of women Alliance artists such as Marjorie Kramer. The Whitney denied that these appeals drove them to include Neel in their 1972 Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Painting or organize Neel’s 1974 career retrospective, but they certainly catalyzed these decisions (much like other artist petitions in recent years). Despite receiving negative reviews, the Whitney exhibition cemented Neel’s reputation as a prolific artist and set the stage for her posthumous notoriety. The Alliance thus played a direct role in preserving Neel’s legacy. Furthermore, Neel’s continued confidence in her work at the end of her life must be at least partially owed to the support she received from the group.

The lack of information about Neel and her relationship to the Alliance of Figurative Artists cannot be traced to any one scholar’s oversight. Thanks to the influence of critics and curators, figurative art from the 1970s was not carefully historicized, nor were many contemporary artist collectives. However, overlooking the involvement of Neel in groups like the Alliance allows an inaccurate narrative of the maverick realist painter to persist. We rightfully laud Neel’s staunch commitment to figuration irrespective of mainstream commercial interests, but she was not alone in her pursuit. Scores of figurative artists persisted on the periphery of the art world throughout the 1960s and 1970s, working together to create parallel spaces in which to uplift their practices and each other. Integrating the little-known Alliance into our narratives of beloved artists who participated in it would mark a first step towards filling in the gaps in our history of American art during this generative period.

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