Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Andy Warhol
Throughout her long career, expressive, penetrating portraits were a vital focus of Alice Neel’s artwork.
Many of Neel’s subjects were her family, friends, and lovers, and it was important to her to represent each sitter’s character. As these images were not commissioned vanity portraits, the artist worked with a freedom that seldom resulted in strictly flattering portrayals. Strong, sinuous contour lines, informal poses, and physical distortion are typical qualities in Neel’s works. Moreover, she was known for asking people she barely knew to pose nude for her, and often took advantage of the communicative power of physical details such as body hair or genitalia.
Beginning in the 1960s, Neel produced a series of portraits featuring various players in the art world, including artists, critics, and curators. Among the best known of the series’ images is this portrait of Pop artist Andy Warhol.In 1968, two years before sitting for this painting, Warhol had been shot. The lasting effects of this ordeal fill the center of the painting—huge, dramatic scars cross his torso, and the girdle he wore to support his damaged stomach muscles is on display. Neel has painted the details of his face with great care, but the pink skin is set off by greenish shadows that give him a sickly quality. Here, we see nothing of Warhol as the pinnacle of cool glamour. Instead, he seems delicate and defenseless, exposing his damaged body with closed eyes.
As this image of Warhol attests, Neel’s portraits are not about idealized exteriors. Rather, they are about personality, intimacy, vulnerability, and relationships. While she did not sell many paintings during her lifetime, she has come to be known as a keen observer of urban life and an exemplary artist in the Realist tradition.
Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York
“Alice Neel was born in 1900 and lived until 1984, and she essentially lived through most of the twentieth century and all of the artistic styles that came and went in that time. When she came of age in the twenties, thirties, it wasn’t very usual for a painter to decide that portraiture was going to be what they’d focus on. And, of course, at that point it was also highly unusual that a painter would be a woman. And in the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, she worked extremely diligently and without too much recognition. In the sixties, the Women’s Movement and Feminism ended up lifting her as a heroine into the limelight, and a change in art history that was kind of reacting against abstraction and Abstract Expressionism and coming again to look at figuration with work like Pop Art. And so, for the last twenty-five years of her life, she had great renown.
And Alice Neel often spoke about the job that she did as a portrait painter being one that involved a lot of, you could say, psychology. And she would spend a lot of her sessions focusing not so much on painting the person, but talking to the person, getting the person going, figuring out the person. She was very overtly acknowledging whenever she spoke about her work that a lot of her role, she saw, was as a partner to the person who was sitting for her. There is something that is not normal about sitting and having your portrait made, and so what an artist has to do to lure or even to trick the sitter into being themself instead of feeling artificial, became for Alice Neel, and for many other portrait painters, as much part of their skill set as their technical skills in painting.
One of her very most famous pictures is her portrait of Andy Warhol after he was shot, showing his scar. Even with Andy Warhol, the most famous artist of that moment, she’s not out to show him as a superstar, she’s out to show him as this vulnerable, wounded, undressed, frightened guy—not just conforming to the cliché, but really trying to say, ‘Who is this complicated person who’s got sadness as well as happiness, failure as well as triumph—all of that, that we all are.’”
Allara, Pamela. Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s American Portrait Gallery. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 1995.
Badea-Päun, Gabriel, and Richard Ormond. The Society Portrait: From David to Warhol. New York: Vendome, 2007.
Hills, Patricia. Alice Neel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Hills, Patricia, and Roberta Tarbell. The Figurative Tradition and the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980.
Temkin, Ann, and Richard Flood, eds. Alice Neel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.