At the de Young Museum in San Francisco, I recently saw the Alice Neel retrospective People Come First, which is up through July 10, 2022 and is the first large survey of her work to ever be exhibited on the West Coast. Prior to this show I don’t believe I’d ever seen any of her actual paintings, so I was eagerly anticipating my visit, which would be my first out-of-town trip in well over two years, since shortly before the world closed down. I’ve been a fan of Neel’s for many years, and it seemed her work, with its strongly humanist approach, would be perfectly appropriate for my reentry into the realm of museum-going, which I have missed terribly.

From the mid/late 1980s to the mid-’90s, I was regularly borrowing Patricia Hill’s monograph Alice Neel1 from the Sacramento Public Library. Neel’s painting of Andy Warhol, which appears in the book, is what initially prompted me to do so. I don’t remember where or when I first encountered the piece, but it was almost certainly my introduction to her work. It is a masterful portrait, capturing Warhol as he was rarely seen – sensitive and vulnerable. I actually find it surprising that Warhol sat for her in this way, without the mask of the “Andy Warhol” persona. Unfortunately, the painting is not in the present show; I would have loved to have seen it, although while at the museum, with so much strong work to see, I really didn’t think about what wasn’t there.

The first painting in the exhibition is French Girl, one of Neel’s earliest known extant works,2 done when she was in her early twenties. It’s a stunningly attractive piece, but Alice Neel’s artistic ambitions went far beyond the creation of attractive paintings. Her expressionist bent; her employment of caricature; and her drive to produce work which would reveal something of the inner life of the sitter – to paint what she considered “truth” – often resulted in images which do not fall into traditional notions of beauty. Neel did, however, imbue her sitters with the dignity she believed they all possessed. Her wide range of subjects included family, friends, lovers, leftist political figures, pregnant nude women,3 art world luminaries, feminist leaders, kids from her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, members of the LGBT community, and a Fuller Brush man who was also a Holocaust survivor. Her intent was not only to paint individuals, but also to document the times; her oeuvre, in a sense, is a portrait of the era in which she worked.

In one of the de Young galleries, near the piece Ginny in a Blue Shirt, a monitor shows a short silent film of Neel working on that painting. Although Neel was a straightforward easel painter, I found the film to be a fascinating addendum to the exhibition. She started by outlining the figure and other parts of the image – what she called “dividing up the canvas” – in thinned ultramarine blue oil paint. It’s a startlingly direct method of working, and as a result the sitters display a remarkable presence in the paintings. Neel developed compositions very quickly and if some aspect needed to be adjusted, she simply repainted it.4 She would then fill in color, modeling some areas while keeping others flat. This representational/abstract juxtaposition is heightened by her practice of leaving areas of the picture plane unpainted, as in Ginny in a Blue Shirt and many other pieces done in the latter part of her career. Viewing the work in today’s context, it still looks contemporary and, in the present socio-political climate, her obvious affection for her subjects makes it feel not only current, but revolutionary.

Alice Neel passed away in October of 1984 at the age of eighty-four.


All artwork © The Estate of Alice Neel.


1 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1983). In those barbaric pre-internet-shopping days, I was unable to find a copy for purchase until it was reprinted in 1995.

2 In 1934, much of Neel’s early work – about sixty paintings and two hundred drawings and watercolors – was slashed and burned along with her clothing by Kenneth Doolittle, a controlling boyfriend/opium addict. She believed he would have killed her had she not fled their apartment.

3 Neel’s interest in pregnant women, mothers, and children was probably informed by the loss in 1927 of her first baby to diphtheria and the fact that in 1930, her husband abandoned her and took their second child with him to Cuba.

4 She would often leave the initial, “incorrect” lines evident in the finished work, visually flattening those areas.

Sometime during the summer of 1990 my sister, who was then living in San Francisco, phoned to get my take on Jim Dine – I told her I loved his hearts and his robes and his use of real objects in his paintings. She listened patiently to my cursory knowledge of Dine’s oeuvre, then asked what I thought of his figure drawings, to which I responded I didn’t even know he did them.

“You should really get here right away and see this show,” she said.

My sister isn’t generally given to hyperbole, so the first chance I got, I made the trip to see Jim Dine: Drawings 1973-1987 at the de Young Museum. The show was comprised of figurative work, still lifes, and pieces which don’t fall into such neat categories – Dine’s hearts, robes, tools, et al. are images which, even when convincingly modeled, don’t inhabit space in the same manner as objects in more traditional compositions. Although I was attracted to all his imagery, at the time I was pretty much exclusively doing figurative work, so it was that to which I gravitated.

Dine started his career in the late 1950s and early ’60s with performances, installations, and paintings with actual bathroom fixtures and bedroom furniture; but in the early ’70s decided to focus his energy on perhaps the least avant-garde course of action an artist could have taken at that time: life drawing. His intensely-observed works of the human form eventually became aggressively-produced and expressionistic – characteristics which instigated the call from my sister. Dine draws, rubs out, builds up, erases, and reworks images with graphite, charcoal, pastel, acrylic, oil, enamel, and other media. This process results in multilayered works with rich, often distressed surfaces which reveal the histories of their creation. Despite the amount of reworking associated with these drawings, they are not labored or heavy-handed; on the contrary, they appear inevitable. Over the course of three years, two continents, and two different models, in The Sitter Progresses from London to Here in Three Years Dine managed to create a coherent, emotionally stirring and evocative figure which is enveloped by the atmospheric ground in a palpably physical way. The complexity, virtuosity, and diversity of the exhibited work was truly dazzling, and proved Dine to be one of the finest draftsmen in contemporary art.

My sister’s advice couldn’t have been better; seeing Drawings 1973-1987 was one of the most affecting and inspiring art experiences I’ve ever had. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen heavily-worked mixed media drawings before – I was familiar with those by Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns, both of whom had done pieces I loved which were so layered they could be considered paintings on paper. It was that I related to Dine’s drawings in a way that I was then unable to relate to those by de Kooning or Johns. Dine’s works aligned so perfectly with my aesthetic, I felt as if he had drawn them especially for me. I saw what could be achieved by disregarding the conventional definition of “drawing” and being open to the possibilites in utilizing any process or medium which would serve the work. Although I had never subscribed to the idea that paper is merely a support on which preparatory works for larger, more important pieces are made, and although I had already begun tentatively using paint in my own drawings, the way I thought about art was transformed. Occasionally, one has an experience and afterward never sees the world in quite the same manner – Drawings 1973-1987 was one of those events for me, one that has enriched my life immeasurably.

Jim Dine is still creating, following his muse. Right now, he is somewhere in the world, painting or sculpting or photographing or printmaking or drawing, making art. I love all forms of his work, but nevertheless, I’d kind of like to think he’s drawing.