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Art Market

The Market for Alice Neel’s Captivating Work Is Finally Catching Up with Her Legacy

Karen Chernick
Sep 6, 2021 4:30PM

During the final days of Alice Neel’s blockbuster solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer, the line into the exhibition spanned the length of the museum’s European paintings corridor, and the wait was over half an hour. Titled “People Come First,” the show featured more than 100 gritty cityscapes, domestic interiors, and stripped-down portraits of Neel’s neighbors, friends, and fellow artists in the largest-ever showing of her work in her hometown of New York City.

The excitement surrounding this exhibition delighted longtime fans of the expressive painter while inspiring a legion of new devotees—a trend matched by Neel’s strengthening position in the art market, especially in the past year. In May, Neel’s 1966 canvas Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room roused a flurry of bids from the United States, Asia, and Europe at Christie’s New York, where it ultimately sold for just over $3 million, breaking both its high estimate and the artist’s auction record. Just hours earlier at Sotheby’s New York, Neel’s double portrait Henry and Sally Hope (1977), depicting an art historian and his wife, sold for just under $1.6 million, notching her third-highest auction result.

Installation view of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Neel’s artworks didn’t always have people waiting behind an extended velvet-roped line at an illustrious institution, nor paying multimillion-dollar sums to own one of her canvases. “I painted in obscurity for years and years,” Neel told an interviewer in 1978, perpetuating her image as a reclusive painter who lived in Spanish Harlem and liked to capture local characters. “I used to think the important thing is that you do a good painting, so I didn’t care what happened to it afterwards and I often just put it on a shelf.”

As a staunchly figurative painter during the height of Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, and Minimalism, Neel’s haunting portraits of the anti-glitterati weren’t in high demand during her lifetime, and for years she was more of a cult figure among a limited art world circle. Her personal circumstances also made it challenging for her to spend her days schmoozing curators and collectors, as she was a single mother raising two children following a string of personal tragedies. Neel did, however, live to see her own retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974; by then, she was in her mid-seventies and had been hard at work at her easel for decades.

Alice Neel
Richard Gibbs, c. 1961
Xavier Hufkens
Alice Neel
Sally Noblet, 1964
Xavier Hufkens

A few years later, Neel began working with New York’s Robert Miller Gallery, which specializes in underrepresented 20th-century artists. After her death in 1984, Neel’s estate continued working with the gallery, where, during the 1990s, her paintings were priced in the $50,000 to $75,000 range. Then, in 2008, Neel’s estate began being represented by blue-chip gallery David Zwirner, marking a notable shift in the market value for her work—as well as the range of collectors—and a renewed interest in subjects extending beyond her portraits, including works on paper.

“Her audience was limited and predominantly American,” said Bellatrix Hubert, a senior partner at David Zwirner. Another significant change over the past decade has been her increasingly international audience, bolstered by her representation by Belgian gallerist Xavier Hufkens, as well as Victoria Miro in London. “European and Asian collectors love her work now as much as Americans do,” Hubert added.

This gradually building global enthusiasm has been a driving force behind the multimillion-dollar results for her works at auction. Roughly a year prior to her secondary-market achievements this past May, Neel’s portrait of Lilly Brody (1977) from the sale of Ginny Williams’s collection at Sotheby’s broke the $1 million mark for her work when it sold for $1.04 million, well over its $700,000 high estimate.

The primary-market values for Neel’s work fall somewhere between these three price points. “You can still get a great painting in the $1 million price range, but more and more we are starting to see paintings go in excess of $2 million,” shared Hubert.

Hubert also pointed out that the excitement around May’s sale of Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room was “a nice surprise since it is not a portrait”—historically, her figurative works from the 1960s and ’70s tend to dominate her sales. “The market was primed for a big price for her work, regardless of whether it was portraiture or a still life,” shared Emily Kaplan, a Christie’s senior specialist in the post-war and contemporary art department. “There was pent-up demand.”

Alice Neel, Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room, 1966. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The record-breaking sale of Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room roughly doubled Neel’s previous auction benchmark of $1.65 million, set in 2009 for a double portrait of Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (1970). The work was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of an effort to improve the institution’s representation of female artists. This sale illustrates how the greater zeitgeist of overlooked women artists getting their due has contributed to Neel’s market spike.

The comeback of figurative painting over the past decade is another contributing factor, and the high esteem for Neel among rising contemporary figurative painters has been a boon for her ever-growing legacy. Jordan Casteel has cited Neel as a source of inspiration for her work, for example, as have Frank Auerbach, Elizabeth Peyton, Marlene Dumas, and Jennifer Packer.

Installation view of “Alice Neel: People Come First” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Aided by these two trends, demand now extends more uniformly over Neel’s entire oeuvre. Following on the heels of “People Come First” at the Met, Xavier Hufkens is currently hosting its first exhibition exclusively devoted to Neel’s drawings. David Zwirner, meanwhile, is mounting “Alice Neel: The Early Years,” its sixth solo Neel show since taking on representation of her estate.

With more exhibitions still on the horizon, the limelight continues to shine on Neel. Later this month, “People Come First” will open at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao before traveling to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in March 2022. Coinciding with her gallery solo shows at David Zwirner and Xavier Hufkens, Neel’s work will also be featured in “Close-Up,” a group show at Fondation Beyeler of portraits by female painters. And finally, after some pandemic-related delay, the Centre Pompidou has rescheduled its long-awaited Neel retrospective for some time next year.

Alice Neel, Carolyn Robinson, 1974. Photo by HV-studio. Courtesy of Xavier Hufkens.

Alice Neel, Leaves, ca. 1966. Photo by HV-studio. Courtesy of Xavier Hufkens.

On Artsy, the demand for Neel’s work has climbed steadily over the past decade, with the number of inquiries per available work increasing by about 10 percent year over year up until 2020. In the last two years, the rate of inquiries on Neel’s work has increased dramatically, driven by a robust inventory of prints and works on paper.

Thus far in 2021, demand for her work is on track to outpace last year’s high and double the number of inquiries Neel’s work received in 2019. “These shows, and the critical acclaim that has come with them, undoubtedly go hand in hand with market recognition,” said Hufkens. Hubert echoed that sentiment: “She was an undeniably great painter with an original style. We have finally caught up to her.”

Karen Chernick
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019