This painting, dating from 1970, is currently on display in London’s Barbican as part of “Hot Off the Griddle”, the monumental retrospective of the American portraitist Alice Neel. Neel was an unwavering Communist who spent most of her long career in obscurity, depicting people who lived on the margins, their bodies battered by poverty and disease. So it might seem incongruous to find her, aged seventy, painting this portrait of Andy Warhol. The stitches and corset are remnants of surgery after near-fatal gunshots, and the face is that of the most controversial artist of the twentieth century, best known for his possibly apocryphal prediction that in the future everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame.
I came to this painting two years ago when I began work on a book on women, art, and radicalism that pivots on Valerie Solanas’s 1968 shooting of Andy Warhol. The shooting enraged the artists clustered around Warhol’s Factory while galvanizing radical feminists, some of whom rallied around Solanas, founder and sole member of a revolutionary faction called The Society for Cutting Up Men and author of the SCUM Manifesto. What fascinated me about that polarisation was how many prominent radical feminists were visual artists, including Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, and Ti-Grace Atkinson. So it startled me to discover that, at the peak of that controversy, Warhol was painted by a female artist – not by one of his contemporaries, but by someone I associated with the 1930s and the art of the Popular Front.
I first came across Alice Neel when I read Joseph Mitchell’s 1964 essay “Joe Gould’s Secret”, where she makes a brief, unforgettable appearance, a chatty, patrician eccentric rifling through piles of unsold canvases in the Harlem apartment that doubled as her home and her studio and extricating her 1933 portrait of Joe Gould, a legendary Greenwich Village scrounger and fabulist whom she depicted with a maniacal grin and multiple penises.
I encountered her again while researching a Radio Four feature about the WPA, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes that gave employment to writers and artists. Most, like Neel, were progressives committed to art that addressed the urgency of the political moment. From a documentary made by Neel’s grandson, I learned how her work for the WPA came amidst a life threaded with trauma: a breakdown and three suicide attempts; a stream of abusive partners; and bouts of impoverishment that contributed to her first daughter’s death from diphtheria and to the malnutrition from which one of her two sons nearly went blind. And yet despite all that, despite years of rejection and FBI surveillance, she kept on painting. Only shortly before her death in 1984 did she gain recognition, celebrated as a foremother by Judy Chicago and other artist-activists who were pioneering a feminist art movement.
Throughout her life, Neel approached portrait painting as a radical act. “I respect people and their struggle,” she stated. “Every person is a new universe unique with its own laws.” For most of her career, she focused on the universes immediately around her: her children, her lovers, her neighbours in Greenwich Village and Harlem, her Communist Party comrades in arms. Many of her friends were posed unclothed, the women sometimes pregnant or nursing.
Her 1940 portrait TB Harlem depicts her lover’s brother Carlos Negron, who had emigrated from Puerto Rico to a New York tenement and contracted tuberculosis. Neel shows him holding the patch covering the incision where surgeons had removed several ribs, a then-common treatment called thoracoplasty, carried out under a local anesthetic. The mutilation of Negron’s emaciated torso and the saintlike solemnity of his martyred gaze convey a quiet fury at the poverty and overcrowding that made tuberculosis rampant in Harlem and the barbarity of a procedure that Neel likened to “a crucifixion”.
Portraits like TB Harlem got Neel categorized as a Social Realist, but she was never an easy fit for the label – her work was too psychological, often too sexual, and sometimes (as with Joe Gould) too weird. She painted not the literal facts of her subjects but what she perceived as their inner contortions. “One of the primary motives of my work was to reveal the inequalities and pressures as shown in the psychology of the people I painted,” she explained. “I paint my times, using the people as evidence”. This remained her intention even when, in the early Sixties, at her therapist’s urging, she began reaching beyond her habitual circles and painting figures within New York’s art world. The results got her a gallery and a bit of critical notice, but some of her subjects were horrified by how she depicted them, and few of her canvases sold.
It was at this moment of apparent stagnation that the seeds of the 1970 portrait of Warhol were sown. In 1963, an article about Neel appeared in ArtNews with her painting of poet and curator Frank O’Hara on the cover. Soon after, at the Museum of Modern Art, she was approached by a bewigged stranger, a former fashion illustrator who had recently gained global notoriety for an exhibition of paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans. “Oh, you’re the woman who makes those wonderful portraits!” he exclaimed. “I want a portrait”.
At that stage, nothing came of Warhol’s request, but seven years later Neel ran into him in the aisles of Manhattan’s Gotham Book Mart, and shortly after, he turned up on the doorstep of her apartment. The journey uptown was a stretch for Warhol, so he invited his friend Brigid Berlin to accompany him. (“Andy asked me to go with him to Alice Neel’s because he was afraid to go to Harlem by himself,” Berlin wrote. “I couldn’t believe we were going all the way up there!”) Herself an artist, Berlin brought a camera and documented the session in Polaroids.
At the start of the sitting, Warhol suggested that he remove his shirt. In itself this wasn’t unusual. He had posed shirtless one year before for photographer Richard Avedon; according to his biographer Blake Gopnik, “he was surprisingly happy to reveal his mutilated torso to people he barely knew”. He also suggested that he close his eyes, in order, Neel thought, to make his portrait stand out, “because all my [other] pictures look at you”. Neel stood nearby at her canvas, outlining Warhol’s figure in blue. While she painted, she chatted, a stream of free associations punctuated by occasional “door-slamming pronouncements”. Mary Garrard, a feminist art historian who posed for Neel a few years later, thought that her habit of “talking incessantly” while she painted was a way “to keep her conscious mind engaged…so that the artistic subconscious could do its work”. From the outside the process looked casual, but for Neel it could be depleting. “Sometimes I feel awful after I paint,” she once remarked. “Do you know why? Because I go back to an untenanted house… I leave myself and go out to that person. And then when I come back, there’s that desert.”
She unveiled the portrait in October 1970 at the Graham Gallery, which had shown her work since the early 1960s. Warhol attended the opening, but he didn’t buy the painting, and neither did anyone else. When the exhibition closed that November, the Warhol portrait went the way of so many before it, carted back to Neel’s apartment. A year later, a financier named Timothy Collins arrived for a sitting, saw the Warhol canvas propped in a corner, purchased it, and immediately donated it to the Whitney Museum of American Art. His claim for Neel’s artistic significance supported a growing campaign by feminist artists to force the Whitney to give her the institutional recognition that had been for too long denied.
In 1970, painting Warhol was entering into a minefield. What, in the end, did his scarred torso mean? Was Warhol best understood as collateral damage in a revolutionary struggle spearheaded by Valerie Solanas, a feminist visionary who (as Robin Morgan put it in the 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful) “should be known primarily as an artist”? Or was he the victim of an assassination, “a conspiracy against the cultural revolution” as Factory star Viva put it, shot by a demented philistine targeting the very spirit of art?
On that question, the painting is silent. What it stresses instead is Warhol’s androgyny. Berlin’s Polaroids and Avedon’s photos make clear that Neel exaggerates Warhol’s womanish qualities – the sagging breasts, the spindly chest, the delicacy of his arms and feet. While the figure in Avedon’s photo is aggressively macho, a leather-jacketed, battle-scarred avant-garde martyr, the person in Neel’s portrait straddles the boundary between male and female. The face is instantly recognizable as the quintessential Pop bad boy; the body could be a woman ravaged by a brutal caesarean birth.
“Neel’s particular gambit”, Mary Garrard reflected, “was to discover and expose in her sitters the very things they would rather keep private.” What Neel sensed hidden in Andy Warhol was something that long preceded the shooting: a discomfort with his own physicality and – to her, more personally relevant – a struggle with the machismo of the archetypal Great Artist. As a queer man who came of age before Stonewall, Warhol grappled with his own marginality. Abstract Expressionist swaggerers like Willem de Kooning openly loathed him; so too, more hurtfully, did two Pop artists Warhol admired, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, gay men who affected a buttoned-up conventionality, distancing themselves from an artist they reportedly disdained as “too swish”.
In the face of persistent homophobia, when even the women’s movement was fracturing around the inclusion of lesbians and trans women, Neel showed a striking openness to sexual fluidity. Around the same time she was painting Warhol, she befriended the drag artist and Factory star Jackie Curtis, painting him twice (one portrait hangs next to Warhol’s at the Barbican) and remaining friends for the rest of her life. It was Curtis who phoned Warhol in October 1984 to tell him that Alice Neel had died. “She was a sweet old lady,” Warhol wrote in his diary. Three years later, he died too.
Today, forty years on, the Warhol portrait is considered Neel’s greatest work, and her critical reputation has skyrocketed. Those canvases long stacked in her Harlem apartment now fetch sums in the millions. As for Warhol: though in 1970 critics focused “more on Warhol the celebrity than Warhol the artist,” he is now ranked as the most influential Western artist since Picasso. Both are more important now than when they were alive.
Yet their newfound eminence is not without paradoxes. Neel and Warhol are each cited as empowering influences by female artists and artists of colour: Nina Chanel Abney, Mickalene Thomas, and Devan Shimoyama all point to Warhol; Amy Sherald, Wangari Mathenge, and Jordan Casteel are among the many pointing to Neel. And yet according to a 2022 report into museums and galleries, female and Black artists remain shockingly under-represented. In recent years, acquisitions of their work have actually decreased.
“You know what it takes to be an artist?” Neel once said. “Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil. To never give up.” She devoted her life to her creative vision at almost unimaginable personal cost. Inspiring as it is to see her persistence rewarded, it is sobering to realise how much work remains to be done.