Alice Neel, two artists, and an avocado: double portrait one of the highlights of major New York show

The survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will shed light on Neel’s recurring subjects, from family members and lovers to the bohemians and activists she collaborated with

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On show at the Met will be Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian (1978), one of around 100 works by Alice Neel, a self-confessed “collector of souls” © The Estate of Alice Neel

On show at the Met will be Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian (1978), one of around 100 works by Alice Neel, a self-confessed “collector of souls” © The Estate of Alice Neel

Geoffrey Hendricks recalls Neel foregrounding the fruit bowl “with a little twinkle in her eye”

In the autumn of 1977, the Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks and his partner, fellow artist Brian Buczak, gave the painter Alice Neel a lift back into New York City from Rutgers University in New Jersey. She invited them up to her apartment for coffee, and the three talked late into the night. The next morning, Neel’s daughter-in-law called the couple: the artist wanted to paint them that afternoon wearing the same clothes from the night before. The resulting double portrait is one of 100 paintings, watercolours and drawings included in Alice Neel: People Come First at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The survey opening on 22 March will shed light on Neel’s recurring subjects, from family members and lovers to the bohemians and activists she collaborated with, as well as her commitment to social equality and seeing people as people. In her painting of Hendricks and Buczak, the pair sit at her kitchen table, Buczak’s arm curling around his partner like the banana cradling the avocado; Hendricks recalls Neel foregrounding the fruit bowl “with a little twinkle in her eye”. Wearing a pea-green jumper and jeans the shade of Neel’s signature blue outline, the bespectacled Hendricks smiles from behind end-of-day stubble while Buczak’s plaid shirt is unbuttoned to reveal a hairy chest.

“There’s a real connection between the sitters and also between them and the artist, who feels closer, both psychologically and physically, than she often is,” says Sarah Roberts, a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which has lent the often requested work to the Met. That connection is reinforced by the close-cropped composition and the smudgy halo that embraces the couple.

Painted during the gay rights movement, Neel gives us an easy, unforced representation of same-sex love—which was no doubt part of the appeal for Roberts’ predecessor at SFMOMA, Gary Garrels, who bought the painting for the museum in 2012. “He loved Neel’s work and thought about what would resonate with our audience,” Roberts says. “I’m sure the subject matter felt right for San Francisco.”

Alice Neel: People Come First, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 22 March-1 August

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