Alice Neel at OCMA

Alice Neel, The Robinson Family, 1974. Robinson Family Collection

I was a little dubious about the Orange County Museum of Art's "Alice Neel: Feels Like Home." It is oddly timed, coming on the heels of 2022's much larger "Alice Neel: People Come First" that played San Francisco (de Young) and New York (Met) and 2023's "Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle" in London (Barbican Centre). That would have complicated loan arrangements. The exhibition was organized with the artist's estate, which can mean a lot of atypical works that didn't sell in the artist's lifetime.

In fact the OCMA show is a concise, satisfying mini-survey with about 40 paintings. It includes at least a dozen masterful portraits of Neel's maturity, along with enough early works to give a sense of her development. All that's missing are the nudes—an important omission, however.

Alice Neel, Belmar, New Jersey, 1935. Courtesy the Estate of Alice Neel and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Born in Mainline Philadelphia, Alice Neel (1900–1984) married Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez after art school and moved to Havana. The match was a disaster, plunging Neel into depression and attempted suicide. She found her way back to New York and lived there for rest of her life. 

The OCMA show's earliest works are New York cityscapes and genre scenes of the 1930s. They have notes of Robert Henri, Charles Burchfield, Florine Stettheimer, and Edward Hopper.

Alice Neel, Dead Father, 1946. Courtesy the Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner
Neel's portrait of her late father seems an homage to Ben Shahn's The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. It's accompanied here by a living likeness of the artist's mother from 1952.
Alice Neel, Ian and Mary, 1971. Collection of Bobbi and Stephen Rosenthal
As a figural painter, Neel was unfashionable during the heyday of the New York School. She came into her own in the 1960s and 70s with portraits of friends and neighbors in bohemian, Communist, beatnik, hippie, proletarian, and intellectual circles. None of the sitters here are terribly famous, but the pictures speak for themselves.

"Alice Neel: Feels Like Home" is on view in Costa Mesa through Oct. 22, 2023.
Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth, 1975. Private collection
Alice Neel, Henry and Sally Hope, 1977. Private collection
Alice Neel, Charles, 1978. Private collection


Re "The exhibition was organized with the artist's estate, which can mean a lot of atypical works that didn't sell in the artist's lifetime.":
Works unsold during the artist's lifetime doesn't necessarily mean they were less-than. Indeed, many artists have kept their best works for themselves.
Jasper Johns's hoard at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are from "the artist's collection."
I saw the Neel show at the Met. The place was lousy with works from (I think it was called) the Alice Neel Foundation. Those works were many of my favorites.