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Alice Neel, pictured in October 1980.
Alice Neel, pictured in October 1980.Frank Leonardo/New York Post Archives /NYP Holdings Inc. via Getty Images

“My mother used to say to me, ‘I don’t know what you expect to do; you’re only a girl,’” painter Alice Neel (1900-84) told art critic Cindy Nemser in an audio interview in the 1970s. “But this, instead of destroying me, made me more ambitious.”

Neel — largely unsung during her lifetime but beloved in recent decades — moved against the tide. She was an unflinching portraitist in an era of abstraction and minimalism; her works were loose, tender, and socially pointed. You can hear from the artist herself in the J. Paul Getty Trust’s “Recording Artists: Radical Women” podcast, hosted by curator and art historian Helen Molesworth, formerly of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

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The podcast is based on interviews in the Getty Research Institute’s archive. The first season, which debuted last November, spotlights women artists whose lives span the 20th century. The wry, insightful Molesworth taps two contemporary artists — sculptor Simone Leigh and photographer and video artist Moyra Davey — to reflect on Neel’s comments. Reaching across decades, the episode makes a rich core sample of attitudes about what it means to be a woman artist.

Neel’s story is painful. She let her then-husband spirit their young daughter off to his parents in Cuba, thinking she’d have time to paint, essentially giving up custody. Then she suffered a mental breakdown. “I must admit that I always felt guilty about art, because in a way, it divided my soul,” she tells Nemser.

The commentary of Leigh, Davey, and Molesworth is equally compelling. Their 21st-century perspective spells out that while much has changed, much, too, has stayed the same. Take a listen: www.getty.edu/recordingartists/season-1/neel/


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.