Left: Alice Neel, John Mollenkopf (1970), oil on canvas. Gift Dr. Hartley Neel. Collection of the David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University. Right: John Mollenkopf at his desk. (Credit: City Limits/Jarrett Murphy)
By Bonnie Eissner
By noon on Memorial Day 2021, months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “Alice Neel People Come First,” visitors were waiting at least 30 minutes to get a peek at the raved-about retrospective of Neel’s now iconic portraits and paintings. One person who had not yet seen the show, described as “momentous” by The New York Times, was Graduate Center Distinguished Professor John Mollenkopf (Political Science and Sociology). But he had good reason to go.
Mollenkopf, who is also the director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center and the author or co-author of numerous books about New York City politics and urban issues such as immigration, was a friend of Neel’s, and her 1970 portrait of him is now in the collection of Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery.
In the painting, a 24-year-old Mollenkopf, then a Ph.D. student in political science at Harvard, sits on a large box. His blue eyes gaze off as if he’s lost in thought. He leans slightly forward, his hands gently clasped, his feet bare. He looks both comfortable and poised. The painting is warm-hued, expressive. It conveys familiarity and fondness.
Alice Neel, John Mollenkopf (1970), oil on canvas. Gift Dr. Hartley Neel. Collection of the David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University.
Mollenkopf came to know Neel through her son and daughter-in-law, Hartley and Ginny Neel, and had just met the artist. She was 70 at the time and verging on late-career fame.
“Alice and I just hit it off immediately,” Mollenkopf said.
Although the Brown art gallery website alludes to the portrait being made in Vermont, Mollenkopf recalled that it was painted at the Neels’ apartment in San Francisco.
Mollenkopf stayed with the Neels while researching his dissertation on community organizing in San Francisco, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Boston. He noted that the Neels had just moved into the apartment. “They had practically no furniture and you can see that Alice painted me sitting on a wooden shipping box that they were they were using as a coffee table.”
Neel and Mollenkopf shared left-of-center views. In the 1930s, Neel painted portraits of Communist leaders and organizers who were part of her social circle in Greenwich Village. “She’d been very much part of Village Bohemian scene,” Mollenkopf said.
Mollenkopf was also veering to the left. He had joined the U.S. Army Reserves to avoid being drafted into the Army and, in Boston, had organized reservists against the Vietnam War.
Appointed a tenure-track professor at Stanford Business School in 1972, at age 26, he didn’t quite fit. “The business school and I both realized that it wasn’t going to work for me to be a radical professor at the Stanford Business School,” he said.
He continued to work at Stanford directing the urban studies program until 1980 when he moved to New York, where he first worked for Department of City Planning before joining the Graduate Center faculty in 1981.
Mollenkopf and Neel stayed in touch. “I wasn’t a close friend, but we were definitely warm friends,” he said.
A few years after the portrait was made, Mollenkopf recalled that he organized a show for Neel in an artist collective that occupied the American Can Company building in San Francisco.
When in New York, he visited Neel at her apartment, which doubled as her studio and was crammed with her canvases.
“I watched her paint a few people, and when I visited, she would walk over to her racks full of paintings and pull out this or that painting and tell me the story behind it,” he said. “A lot of them were paintings that are in the show.”
He attended openings for shows of Neel’s work, after which, he recalled there would be “a big raucous, fun family dinner with Alice.”
He added, “I adored her, and she liked me too. She could well be the most interesting person I’ve ever met.”
Mollenkopf’s portrait was donated by Ginny and Hartley Neel to Brown after Alice passed away.
“It reminds me of a certain time of my life, which was very exciting,” Mollenkopf said. “It’s nice to have an iconic image of myself captured at that period.”
Having been painted by Neel is “like a badge of honor,” Mollenkopf reflected. “I’m not just a square political scientist.”