new-york

Alice Neel

Whitney Museum of American Art

“I have always considered the human being the first premise—I feel his condition is a barometer of his era.” With this assertion, printed in the brochure accompanying a retrospective of her portraits at the Whitney Museum, Alice Neel affirms her focus on the human individual as subject matter. Yet the term “portrait” is somewhat deceiving, for it implies an emphasis on the personality of the sitter. In another statement, Neel explains, “I decided to paint a human comedy—such as Balzac had done in literature.” The comparison is apt because, like Balzac, Neel tends to stress characteristics indicative of a social type rather than of the individual’s uniqueness. Harold Cruse is depicted as the troubled, insecure black intellectual of the ’50s; Abdul Rahman as the proud, self-confident Afro-American of the ’60s; Irene Paslikas (The Marxist Girl) as the intellectualizing student revolutionary;

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