Auntie-Hero

Some of the results are amazing. Especially the one of Warhol as a wounded, introverted angel, in which Neel meticulously renders his scars like some modern Saint Thomas. We're also treated to some scary fashion moments. The artist Louise Lieber wears a blue minidress and a purple macramé hat; art critic Gregory Battcock dons yellow bikini briefs and red socks while, next to him, fellow critic David Bourdon sports a pair of Beatle boots. Henry Geldzahler, curator at the Metropolitan Museum, looks indifferent, if skeptical. During their sitting, Neel—who always used these sessions to gossip and further her career—asked to be included in a show Geldzahler was curating, to which he frostily replied, "Oh, so you want to be a professional?"

Other times Neel had genuine insight: In a picture of art historian Linda Nochlin and her daughter, you sense mixed emotions about motherhood on both sides of the canvas. Also, Neel was never beyond flattery. According to the critic John Perreault, who posed nude, she made his penis larger than it is; she gave the eminent art dealer Ellie Poindexter bosoms the size of basketballs, and knocked a few years off art historian Meyer Schapiro. And pride? She called her picture of Annie Sprinkle—a Larry Rivers-like doozy of Sprinkle wearing little but a garter belt and labia ring—"my New York Olympia."

Neel’s David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock (1970), Louise Lieber, Sculptor (1971), and John Perreault (1972) at the Whitney
photo: Robin Holland
Neel’s David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock (1970), Louise Lieber, Sculptor (1971), and John Perreault (1972) at the Whitney

Details

Alice Neel
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through September 17

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By the time she died in 1984, Neel—who saw herself passed over by many of her own sitters (including Geldzahler)—was celebrated as a symbol of what expanding the canon could do. She even wound up on the Johnny Carson show, twice. Who she is to us today, as a painter, is more important than who she was as an icon. This exhibition does much in the way of furthering Neel the artist. Most of all, it does what good shows do: leaves us wanting more.

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