You’ve been there: Time’s ticking down on eBay for a vintage concert T-shirt, and you drop $50 — twice what it sold for when it was new. So don’t be shocked that the Cleveland Museum of Art paid $1.65 million at auction this past November for Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd, Alice Neel’s 1970 double-portrait, expected to go for about $500,000. “I would not describe it as a pretty picture,” says chief curator Griff Mann. But spend time with it, he suggests, and “its beauty comes through in a more compelling way.” It’s a seminal artwork by an increasingly popular painter, he says, and it’ll surprise those who look closely.
1. Redd and Curtis “look out at you in the unflinching way Alice Neel’s work is very known for,” says Mann. Neel, who called herself a “collector of souls,” focused on the psychology of her subjects. Her portraits are striking, even unnerving.
2. That’s Jackie Curtis with the lipstick, the angular face, the women’s clothes. A major figure at Andy Warhol’s Factory in the late 1960s, Curtis was an actor in Warhol’s film Flesh and a character in Lou Reed’s 1972 single “Walk on the Wild Side.”
3. “Based on the name, you might think Ritta Redd is the redhead,” says Mann, “but that’s actually Jackie Curtis on the right and Ritta Redd on the left.” The two men, who were a couple, both defied gender typecasting — Redd with his feminine name, Curtis with his cross-dressing diva personality.
4. Neel’s portrait joins in the couple’s gender-bending. Redd, the more masculine figure, is receding, Mann notes, while “the person who’s more active, more coming out toward the spectator, is Jackie Curtis.”
5. Neel used a plain background to make the two figures pop out. With no setting to look at, the viewer focuses on the two men and their relationship.
6. A close look at the painting shows Neel’s spontaneous technique, which helps make the painting vivid. “She’s sometimes going over lines or revising them,” notes Mann. “She’s not doing a detailed line drawing first. She’s working directly in paint, right in front of her subjects.”