Reflection and Identity: Examining the Work of Artist Alice Neel

Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd1970. Alice Neel (American, 1900-1984). Oil on canvas, Framed - h:154.30 w:108.90 cm (h:60 11/16 w:42 13/16 inches). Unframed - h:152.40 w:106.40 cm (h:60 w:41 7/8 inches). Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 2009.345. (c) The Estate of Alice Neel.

When asked to contribute to the museum’s celebration of Women’s History Month, I immediately thought of Alice Neel’s portrait of Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd. The reason it came to mind may seem obvious:  the artist is, of course, a woman, and it is a powerful image. My thoughts about it, however, are more personal: I am deeply moved by Neel’s long struggle with conventional definitions of identity, a struggle that not only informs this portrait, but also has resonance far beyond it.

Neel was born at the turn of the twentieth century into a conservative, middle class family in Pennsylvania. As a young girl, her ambitions for a fuller life, one in which she could experience and accomplish more, were discouraged.  Neel remembered her mother saying to her: “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.”

Neel expected to do a great deal in the world. She was fiercely independent, painting portraits at a time when virtually all “modern” artists pursued abstraction. Typically, her subjects were family, lovers, and friends. Her images are expressive, frank, and, often, highly sexualized.  In the 1930s she briefly worked for the Public Works of Art Project (one of the government-funded programs intended to provide work for artists during the depression), but she was dropped after six months because, according to PWAP records, her painting was “of good artistic merit but so inappropriate that it was considered useless.” Many considered her subjects suspect because Neel, who described herself as a “collector of souls,” was drawn to outsiders: artists, writers, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and homosexuals. 

Her personal life was unconventional—particularly for a woman—including a marriage, a long series of lovers, children born in and out of wedlock, and a deep commitment to radical social causes (her left-wing politics prompted the FBI to open a file on her).   Her life was also chaotic.  She moved frequently—sometimes with her children and sometimes leaving them behind—lived in poverty for decades, and suffered greatly from depression. Neel’s passion for art propelled her and sustained her; when she descended into suicidal depression, painting was her salvation.  

Neel is often seen as a standard bearer for the women’s movement that emerged in the late 1960s.  She was a prominent figure in protests of exhibitions that excluded women artists and in 1970 her portrait of Kate Millett was featured as the cover of an issue of Time magazine dedicated to “The Politics of Sex.”  While Neel certainly supported the women’s movement, she was impatient with all the limitations contemporary society placed on identity.

Which brings us to the portrait of Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd. By the late 1960s, Neel began to achieve a measure of success.  She had also become part of Andy Warhol’s circle, where she met Jackie and his lover Ritta, who both appeared in Warhol’s films.  

The portrait is both compelling and unsettling. One might assume that Ritta Redd is the red-headed figure on the right, but that is, in fact, Jackie Curtis. What may appear at first glance to be a portrait of a heterosexual couple is, in fact, a painting of two men—Jackie is in drag. Neel further confounds assumptions about gender. Jackie, even in the role of a woman, dominates.  He literally pushes Ritta back with his right shoulder and leg, while Ritta appears smaller and almost child-like, as he leans into Jackie.

Neel deliberately blurred gender roles in this painting, not to shock us and certainly not to confer judgment. On the contrary, by rendering the conventional distinctions inoperative, she captured the simple humanity of her subjects.  

Toward the end of her long life, Neel reflected on her career, with uncharacteristic, but poignant, modesty: “I do not know if the truth that I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others. It is hard to go against the tide of one’s time, milieu, and position. But at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and a woman. Not that I felt they were all that different from men’s. I did this at the expense of the untold humiliations, but at least after my fashion I told the truth as I perceived it, and, considering the way one is bombarded by reality, did the best and most honest art of which I was capable.”

This blog post is part of the Cleveland Museum of Art's spotlight on women in the arts. Check back throughout the month of March for stories from members of the CMA staff for their stories in honor of Women's History Month.


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