One of the artists Osna——my high school art teacher——introduced me to was Alice Neel. I count her as the best portrait painter of the 20th century. When I read that the Met was putting up a retrospective, I knew I couldn’t miss it.
When I told people about the show, I was surprised how few had heard of Neel. Not even the fact that Susan Sarandon played her in a movie rang many bells. This was hardly the first time something I hold dear turns out to be unknown or forgotten, but I’m never not surprised. It’s like pointing out the Eiffel Tower and getting blank stares. Then I say she was the best portrait painter of the 20th century and they nod, humoring me, like you do with a crazy person, hoping he gets whayever he’s hung up on out of his system quickly.
I don’t care though. I’ll stick to my guns. Granted, the 20th century wasn’t a banner one for portraiture, but I can think of few painters who came close to Neel. Lucien Freud, maybe, but Neel had more range and her subjects rarely look half-dead from exhaustion. Matisse made some great ones, but it wasn’t his strongsuit. All the true greats were in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Photography likely usurped the importance of the painted portrait. What I love about Neel’s sitters is that they look like photography never existed. They’re not frozen in time. They look like they’re about to get up and walk out into the street.
I wake up super early Sunday morning in New York City, so I decide to go to the Met early. I eat breakfast, then sit on a park bench just north of the museum on 5th Avenue and read a book about skateboarding, sneaking occasional looks at the passing dogs, as well as a few of the humans tethered to them. This is the last full day of my trip east and I can’t imagine a better way to cap it.
Around 9:30, I drift toward the entrance where about a dozen people are milling about. I take a place behind a nervous-seeming older woman and sip the last of my coffee, then put my mask back on, which seems to make her less flitty. The guy behind me insists I move six inches closer to the woman to allow him the precise social distance he requires.
The central part of the staircase is chained off as workers finish hosing down the steps. By 9:45, the line stretches to the northern tip of the building. It’s one of the rare cases where being pathologically early breaks in my favor.
Despite the self-evident nature of queues, which everyone should now be extra-familiar with, many new arrivals approach the guards to ask whether the line is for ticket-holders or for members or, what is it for anyway? There will always be a segment of our species that fervently believes there’s a special entrance designated only for them. That the rest of us are either not here for the same thing as they are, or are less deserving, or just not in the know.
I break into a trot after my ticket is scanned and find the Neel show in minutes. I’m only the second or third one into its galleries aside from the guards. I spend the next hour going back and forth, from start to finish, then back again. I spend a few minutes doodling a couple of her paintings in the one room with a bench. These sketches are just to make myself stop and look closer, rather than an end in themselves.
There are multiple instances during this hour when I’m on the verge of tears. That rarely happens to me looking at art. But most of the art I see isn’t by Alice Neel.
At some point a woman asks to take my picture as I’m sketching. She promises not to include my face, to which I say that she can’t see it anyways, as we’re all masked. She laughs, then takes her picture and leaves. I follow a minute later. I look for her for a few seconds, but she’s indistinguishable from anyone else in what is now a substantial crowd. It is the polar opposite of the people in the paintings on the walls. They seem many more times alive than most of the people looking at them.
As I leave the show, I’m doubly glad to’ve come early, as the line to get in now stretches through several other rooms. I’m sure it will remain at capacity, so I decide not to try to come back after abreak, as I’d intended. I’ve seen plenty enough to know this is one of the best art shows I’ve ever seen. I walk out into the sunshine and drive west.
p.s. Looks like my plans to take over the NYC pet portrait market have hit a snag…but I’ll still be happy to oblige, should you have the need.