Elizabeth Neel was eight years old when she got her first set of oil paints, a Winsor & Newton paintbox, as a gift from her grandmother, the late, great portraitist Alice Neel.
Neel’s earliest painting experiences were with Alice, working side by side. But there was never any pressure to follow in her footsteps.
“I liked to draw a lot and she wanted to encourage that, because she thought I was good and she had a connection with me. We had a lot of fun together,” Neel told Artnet News. “She was a great grandmother, even though she never allowed anyone to call her that. She was always Alice to us.”
“A lot of people will say to me, ‘It must be hard that your grandmother was always so famous’—but she wasn’t,” Neel added. “For me, she was this intelligent, charming human who made these beautiful, insightful pictures that we lived around all my childhood. I think it would have been really different if she’d been a man and she’d been properly famous—that could have been oppressive.”
Instead, Neel, now 46, was able to enter the art world on her own terms, first getting a certificate at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, followed by an MFA at Columbia University in New York. She’s shown her abstract paintings regularly since 2005, and she enjoyed a 2010 solo show at SculptureCenter in Queens.
The past few months, however, have been a particularly busy time, as Neel was preparing for not one, but two solo shows. “Arms Now Legs” is currently on view at her New York gallery, Salon 94. “Limb After Limb,” featuring paintings she originally planned to exhibit in a deconsecrated church, will debut next month at Pilar Corrias, Neel’s London dealer.
“The Salon 94 title references certain kind of transformative imagery in Ovid’s , and the show at Pilar’s is a more John Milton-esque image of the world in a transformative state of turmoil, so I see the two as very connected,” Neel said. “Given the way I work, which is organically with a set of ideas, it was impossible for them not to be related. Everything that I’m reading about or thinking about or listening to goes into the work.”
Each piece starts with raw canvas and a primer coat of clear acrylic polymer that keeps the painting from sinking in all the way through the fabric. It also allows Neel to use white to create lighter areas against the background, many areas of which she leaves untouched, to “preserve a lot of air in the canvas,” she said.
But unlike her childhood oil painting sessions with Alice, Neel chooses acrylic paint to create her many-layered works.
“When I worked in oil, it took so long for every layer to dry that I would get out of the headspace I needed to feel a kind of continuity in the painting,” she explained.
Neel has a deep bag of tricks at her disposal to achieve her complex compositions, sometimes folding the painted canvas to create a Rorschach-like effect, and employing a wide variety of tools in her mark-making. “I use rollers, I use rags, I use my hands with rubber gloves on—and once in a while, I do use a brush too,” she said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Neel has been living and working almost exclusively at her childhood home in rural Vermont, pressing the barn space above her parents’ garage into service as her studio. The change of scenery from her longtime home in Brooklyn proved inspirational.
“It was incredible to be able to step out into a snowy landscape or a sunny world of grass and flowers. Much more refreshing than stepping out onto a concrete slab with loud noises,” Neel said. “It felt almost like being a hermit or a monk. It was frightening, to a degree, to begin making a show without any human context, but it was a challenge that ended up being really good for me.”
She made one of two trips back to New York for the opening of her grandmother’s critically acclaimed retrospective, “Alice Neel: People Come First,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March. (The exhibition closed earlier this month.)
“I’m incredibly happy that she’s getting what I think is her due,” Neel said. “Alice is really inspirational for me. I don’t think I ever met a person who was more tenacious or had more guts in the face of lack of interest than she had.”
Alice’s struggles for recognition and financial compensation, which were documented in the show, were part of the reason her two sons were drawn to the professional world, becoming a doctor and a lawyer. But Elizabeth and her brother, filmmaker Andrew Neel, turned back to pursue creative careers. (He made a feature-length documentary about Alice in 2007, and is currently completing a documentary short about Neel that Corrias will debut during Frieze London in October.)
“I think that actually happens lot in creative families, where you’ll have a flip-flopping effect,” Neel said. The poverty that her father, Hartley Neel, and her uncle, Richard Neel, experienced as children drove them to seek more stable career paths—an impulse that Neel, who took the LSAT before entering art school, understands fully.
“Alice suffered terribly on a physical and emotional level at the hands of her art and the art world,” she said. “That’s not something that you jump into lightly!”
See more works by Neel below.