Currently the subject of a major retrospective organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Alice Neel’s paintings reveal her tenacity for producing expressly figurative paintings, when the dominant artistic narrative was firmly being driven by Modernism and abstraction. “She made familiar objects and faces unfamiliar, using her own brand of abstraction to swim decidedly against the prevailing tides…” writes Julia Bryant-Wilson in the catalogue for the Met’s critically acclaimed exhibition, “…[helping] to undo the false binary of ‘abstraction versus representational’ that has hindered traditional art historical accounts and has contributed to the relegation of women and artists of color—whose work might not so neatly fit into categories falsely assumed to be discrete—to the margins” (J. Bryan-Wilson, “Alice Neel’s ‘Good Abstract Qualities,’ in K. Baum and Randall Griffey, Alice Neel: People Come First, exh, cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2021, p. 103). Painted in 1966, Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room skillfully demonstrates this dismantling of traditional genres with its intoxicating mix of objects, surfaces and textures. Acquired directly from the artist by her doctor and kept in the family collection for the past fifty years, this painting lies at the very heart of Neel’s artistic legacy.
Neel wanted to be taken seriously as a creator of her “own world,” and her flouting of the boundaries between abstraction and figuration was a crucial component of this singular vision.”
In Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room, Neel depicts the interior of her doctor’s waiting room. A higgledy-piggledy arrangement of items offers a visual feast for the artist’s delectation. A low-table covered with bursts of colorful flowers stands in the foreground, on top of a crumpled sheet which covers much of the floor; a well-worn upholstered chair sits next to the stark surface of a brick fireplace; and on the left edge of the composition stands a desk, adorned with another vase of purple-pink flowers. The whole scene is bathed in warm light, the sundrenched hues of golden yellows and taupes and creams, covering the surfaces with a warm, inviting glow. In the 1970s, Neel professed to an admiration for the work of Piet Mondrian, and admitted to the joy she found in dividing up the canvas before she began painting. Here, in the present work, this sense of enjoyment can be witnessed in the floating fields of color produced by the light streaming through the window.
Neel’s career reinvigorated the genre of figuration, portraiture, and domestic interiors exactly at a time when many considered it dead. Born in Philadelphia in 1900, Neel trained at the city’s School of Design for Women and was inspired by expressionist portraits of Edvard Munch and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as painters from Goya to Van Gogh. While she painted landscapes, urban vistas and still lives, human beings were Neel’s favorite subject. Throughout her life, she painted men, women, children, couples, and the spaces they occupied, ranging from the young, rich and poor, all of whom are rendered with a timeless validity. In a period that prized abstraction, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, Neel found a new way to approach an outdated genre of realist portraiture. As an observer of people and settings, she concentrated on the specific, honing in on their singularities, rather than focusing on a particular type. Neel keenly explored her sitters’ personalities and settings, and skillfully translated them into paint. The resulting portraits are unique in that the subject’s outward attributes and appearance reveal their inner self and era in which they lived.
The artist’s current retrospective has thrown new light on her long and distinguished career. Writing in the New York Times, their chief art critic Roberta Smith praises her painterly qualities. “…let’s not forget the dazzling reality of Neel’s paintings as objects, the insistence of her color, light and flattened compositions, the undisguised preliminaries, drawn in blue, and her surface textures. Thick strokes of paint alternate with loosely brushed backgrounds, outlines and patches of empty canvas — all possibly absorbed from Abstract Expressionism. Somewhat like their loquacious maker, Neel’s paintings refuse to shut up and part of their power is their ability to remain abstract. ‘I don’t think there is any great painting that doesn’t have good abstract qualities’ she announced late in life. (R. Smith, “It’s Time to Put Alice Neel in Her Rightful Place in the Pantheon,’ New York Times, April 1st, 2001, via https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/01/arts/design/alice-neel-metropolitan-museum-review.html?searchResultPosition=1 [accessed 4/26/2021]).
…let’s not forget the dazzling reality of Neel’s paintings as objects, the insistence of her color, light and flattened compositions, the undisguised preliminaries, drawn in blue, and her surface textures. Thick strokes of paint alternate with loosely brushed backgrounds, outlines and patches of empty canvas — all possibly absorbed from Abstract Expressionism.”
Alice Neel was persistent and determined in the pursuit of her unique form of painting (particularly portraiture) when it was widely deemed to be the most unfashionable of genres. The originality and quiet power of her work ultimately came to be recognized in the wake of her first retrospective at the Whitney and since then her reputation has since grown to the point where she has gained a unique and iconic status in the history of American painting. Neel's paintings grew out of the Social Realist concerns of American Art of the 1920s and 1930s, during which time she formed her highly personal brand of art. Her paintings often incorporated a strict, self-imposed formula yet working within these confines, Neel created a surprisingly wide range of works, all of which—whatever their subject matter—possess an expressive paint quality that, in the case of Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room, results in an intensely insightful painting.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).