Two Brothers Pose for the Camera. One Survived to See It at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the 1960s, Alice Neel painted two neighborhood boys in her studio. The mystery of what happened to the painting has been solved fifty years later.
When Jeff Neal was eight or nine years old, an older friend took him and his brother Toby on city tours. They would visit the Empire State Building or parks, and on one occasion, they visited a huge apartment on the Upper West Side that was crammed with paintings.
This occurred in the mid-1960s.
Alice Neel stayed in the apartment, and it was the kind of place where people came and went freely. Ms. Neel was not yet famous — it would be another decade before she had her first museum exhibition — and she would ask to paint her guests if they caught her attention.
Allen Tobias, the brothers’ friend and adoptive older brother, had arranged the visits, and he told them: She would one day be a famous painter.
Perhaps a dozen times, the two boys sat for her, returning week after week. And she still provided them with treats, Jeff Neal, now 64, recalled. “That is what had me seated.”
And there is none.
The brothers matured. Ms. Neel was seen on television with President Jimmy Carter by Jeff Neal. She appeared on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” Mr. Tobias met her in the early 1980s outside a Cuban restaurant on Broadway. “I inquired, ‘What became of the drawing, Alice?'” he remembered. She informed him that she had made a few modifications to allow her to sell it, but not much more.
It was his last sighting of her alive.
And when Toby Neal died in 2010, Mr. Tobias brought up the painting during his memorial service, and when people questioned about how they could see it, he was forced to answer, “No one knows.”
They now do.
Jeff and Toby Neal, in their boyish mixture of beauty and boredom, look out from a wall in “Alice Neel: People Come First,” a career-spanning retrospective on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Aug. 1 — the painting’s first New York City exhibition.
Jeff Neal and his partner, Gina, stood in front of the painting for the first time on a March afternoon prior to the exhibition’s opening. Mr. Neal describes himself as a master barber who has largely withdrawn after a car accident. Ms. Neal embraced her husband from behind. They’ve known each other since middle school. Mr. Tobias, now 77, stood by and watched.
Mr. Neal beams at the picture of his younger self and his brother, who has been gone 11 years. “I would think about it and then inquire of Allen. ‘No, I had not heard anything,’ he replied. I’d see her on the television and think, ‘Wow, I’m curious about what happened to my painting.’
Alice Neel, who died in 1984, painted hundreds of people over the course of her six-decade career — some popular, such as Andy Warhol or Allen Ginsberg, but many unknown to the public. “I enjoy painting people who have been corrupted by the rat race in New York City,” she explained to Carson. They are scarred and mutilated, but they are still alive.”
Mr. Tobias, a Columbia student in the early 1960s, met her through a mutual friend and began paying her visits. Mr. Tobias, a Brooklyn native, was a budding bohemian: a novelist and academic who became Allen Ginsberg’s first literary secretary and became active in the era’s radical politics. Ms. Neel’s apartment became a “way station” for him, he explained, as he later frequented Ginsberg’s East Village establishment. Ms. Neel would bring him coffee and they would discuss politics, he explained. “She was quite amusing.”
Mr. Tobias became acquainted with the Neal brothers while employed as a summer playground teacher on West 145th Street, taking a strong interest in the boys due to their father’s recent death. “They became a part of my world,” he said. He escorted them on weekend excursions across the city and upstate.
They visited the Museum of Modern Art often and discussed the civil rights movement and Cuba, Mr. Neal explained. Mr. Tobias surprised him with a drum kit. Mr. Neal continued, “Those were revolutionary days.”
Mr. Tobias shocked them one day. Mr. Neal recalled, “We assumed it was a routine date to the Empire State Building or someplace.” “However, I ended up in her home, and she was a lovely lady.” Due to the similarity of their surnames, he said, “me and Toby assumed she was an ancestor from slavery.”
Ms. Neel, who is now regarded as “one of the century’s most progressive painters,” as the Met exhibition copy describes her, was in her sixties at the time and had only recently emerged from relative obscurity. (She achieved popularity in avant-garde circles as a result of her role in the 1959 Beat film “Pull My Daisy,” but was “overjoyed” if she earned a few hundred dollars for a drawing, according to her son Hartley.) Sometimes, Hartley Neel said, she approached strangers on the street and asked to paint them. She referred to herself as a “soul collector.”
She adored painting children, sometimes in pairs. She desired to paint Mr. Tobias, but he was too shy; however, she did paint Jerry Sokol, the friend who introduced them.
Mr. Tobias escorted the boys from 145th Street to Ms. Neel’s apartment. The boys’ mother purchased new shirts for them.
“It was torturous for me because Allen had me stuck in the same place for hours and days at a time,” Jeff Neal explained. “At my age, it was a little tedious, but I completed it. To me, it was similar to a work. At the very least, I used to get a good lunch from Allen.”
Ms. Neel completed the painting but was dissatisfied with it until a few years later, when she balanced it with the addition of a column in the background. And, along with hundreds of other unsold portraits, it remained in her apartment for more than a decade. Her son Hartley said, “She adored this painting.”
When Patti Goldstein profiled her for New York magazine in 1979 (“The crumbling house on 107th and Broadway,” the article begins, “has seen better days long ago”), Ms. Neel illustrated the jumble of canvases by saying, “I never appealed to mainstream imagination, so not many private collectors collect me.”
Ms. Goldstein, on the other hand, understood a positive thing when she saw one. She purchased “The Black Boys” from Ms. Neel, and the painting vanished from view.
“It had not been misplaced, but there were no records of where it had been sold,” said Ginny Neel, Hartley’s wife, who was unaware of the identities of the boys depicted in the painting. Ms. Goldstein passed away in 2006, and her partner, Sandra Powers, refused to comment on the drawing. The painting was secretly transferred to the private Tia Collection in New Mexico in 2011, where it remained until a 2016 exhibition in Tucson, Arizona.
It was one of the loose ends during Alice Neel’s lengthy career. “There are paintings she gave away in the 1930s and 1940s that we are unaware of before they are put up for auction,” Ginny Neel said.
Mr. Tobias persisted in his quest for the painting. Jeff and Gina Neal brought up their children. Toby Neal died in 2010; Ms. Neel died in 1984. Finally, a truncated photograph of the painting appeared in the catalog for a 2017 exhibition at New York’s David Zwirner museum, but the painting was not included in the exhibition.
As Mr. Tobias showed the catalog to Mr. Neal, Mr. Neal shouted, “I was ecstatic.” “Because that was something I’d been searching for for a long time, and it would be a privilege for me to be able to reflect that image for my brother and me. I am still here. Alice and Toby have both vanished.”
Ginny and Hartley Neel, Jeff and Gina Neel, their son Desmond, and Mr. Tobias all had a private viewing of the painting that had eluded them for so long a week before the Metropolitan Museum exhibition opened.
Randy Griffey, one of the curators, described the connection of a name and individual to one of Ms. Neel’s anonymous portraits as “unique.”
Mr. Tobias scurried between the Neel and Neal families, regaling them with tales from a half-century ago, from another planet. He viewed the painting as a memento of two partnerships — with Ms. Neel and the Neal brothers — and of a city that fostered such relations in the past. Hartley Neel described it as a record of confidence between his mother and the subjects she painted, of the two boys’ complete openness to an entirely new experience.
Ms. Neal struggled to express the nature of the painting’s portrayal of her husband. Then she said, “From the way he appears there, he is lonely.” He’s perplexed, wondering what the devil is going on. She encapsulated it all.”
Mr. Neal had the final say. After lamenting the absence of his brother, he said, “I would say she was looking at two uptown ghetto children and bringing out the beauty in us.”
He was perched on the wall of a grand museum he had never seen, feeling perfectly at ease.