It is said that the future is feminine and one can only hope. However, it is important to remember that continuous excavations make the past more and more feminine. The most recent evidence is the wonderfully relentless retrospective of Alice Neel (1900-1984), the radical-realistic painter of all human things, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alice Neel: People First is a significant exhibition of more than 100 paintings, drawings and watercolors, from street landscapes, still lifes and interiors to portraits of a true cross-section of New Yorkers who are occasionally naked and are considered her greatest work.

The largest Neel retrospective to date in New York, and the first in 20 years, rules over prime Met real estate – the Tisch Galleries, which are usually home to historical figures like Michelangelo, Delacroix and Courbet, and only now an artist. This array confirms that Neel is on par, if not superior, to artists such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, and should receive icon status on behalf of Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney.

“People Come First” begins with a slap in the face, a 1978 portrait that almost dares you to step into: “Margaret Evans Pregnant”. Evans, the wife of collage artist John Evans, is naked, her stomach and breasts swollen from the impending arrival of twins. She is sitting on what appears to be a golden velvet slipper chair, her posture is regal and precarious at the same time, and her staring eyes mimic Neel’s gaze. Her profile and left shoulder register in a nearby mirror. Reflection predicts how a birth will empty its form. The painting heralds various Neel themes: motherhood, female agency, individual personality and body.

Neel liked, she said, the “plasticity” of pregnant women’s bodies, which conjured up both their own distorted shapes and their endless demonstrations of the malleability of oil paints. In 1980, at the age of 80, four years before her death, she revealed her own limp nudity in one of the softest shocking and no-nonsense self-portraits in art history. But their sitters also protected their privacy, as in 1975 in “Cindy Nemser and Chuck”, a naked double portrait of the well-known art critic and her husband. The pose is decorative, but the real cover comes from Nemser’s facial expression, who is vigilant with alert curiosity.

Neel’s star has been on the rise since 1974 when, after decades on the fringes of the art world, her confrontational, solidly painted portraits were finally recognized with an overdue poll at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today she is a cult figure, an early feminist, innate bohemian, former social realist, lifelong activist and staunch representational painter who persevered bravely and portrayed the people and the world around her in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism.

Neel’s greatness lies in the various levels of realism that she combines in her art. They include social and economic inequalities; the deterioration of the body over time; and the complex inner workings of their subjects. There is the reality of Neel’s own personality that is ubiquitous in her work. their insatiable curiosity about people; and her instinct for pushing the envelope, especially by persuading her sitters to pose naked. The realities of her turbulent life are also a constant. We see their family, lovers, children (from three different fathers), friends, neighbors (and their children) in Spanish Harlem, and residents of the New York art world. Life’s tragedies included the death of her first child, daughter, from diphtheria, and the destruction of much of her early work by a jealous lover.

She painted her dying mother, the psychiatric ward, recovering from a nervous breakdown caused by the death of her young daughter, her failed marriage, and two suicide attempts. She portrayed contemporaries in various fields, be it union leaders like union organizer Pat Whalen or civil rights leader James Farmer, Jackie Curtis of Andy Warhol’s factory, or Warhol himself, stretched to the waist and showing the roadmap of the surgical scars from Valerie Solanas’ attempt Life. In 1967 she also painted a portrait of another member of the Warhol Circle, Henry Geldzahler, the Met’s curator for 20th century art, with whom she had an irritable relationship. She asked money payer for a place in his “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970”, a huge exhibition that opened in October 1969 with a woman – Helen Frankenthaler – among her 43 artists and only a few deviations of Pop Art from abstraction should be opened. His answer: “Oh, so you want to be a pro?”

And let’s not forget the dazzling reality of Neel’s paintings as objects, the insistence on their colors, light and flattened compositions, the undisguised, blue-drawn preliminary remarks and their surface textures. Thick lines of color alternate with loosely brushed backgrounds, outlines and spots of blank canvas – all of which may have been absorbed by Abstract Expressionism. Much like their talkative creator, Neel’s paintings refuse to shut up, and part of their power is their ability to remain abstract. “I don’t think there is a great painting that doesn’t have good abstract properties,” she announced late in life. And yet Neel’s pictures in their depictions of individual beings go beyond painting in the psychological honesty of their figures, they press us like an unusually tactile version of photography. They have, as one writer put it, “an overkill of resemblance,” reminiscent of the visceral appetite of Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus’ photographs.

The show is superbly installed by its organizers, Met curators Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey. They switch from chronological to thematic, link works early and late and demonstrate Neel’s fluctuations between different realistic styles – tight, relaxed, expressionistic, surreal. The first two galleries include works from the 1930s through the late 1950s and show how fundamental New York City was to her development – its buildings, problems, people, and the neighborhoods she lived in – Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side and especially Spanish Harlem. She moved there in 1938 to be with José Santiago Negrón, father of Richard, their first son, and stayed until 1960. (José had moved on in 1940.)

There are several medium-sized galleries devoted to her portraits of the 1960s and 1970s that are considered by many to be their best work – and for a while as their fame grew, their only efforts to earn money. But the show confirms that she was stellar from the start, as seen in an El Greco-imbued portrait of her first and only husband, Carlos Enríquez, the father of her two daughters, whom she separated from early but never divorced .

At various points, works from the past disrupt the narrative that seems to be forming. In the Counter / Culture gallery, which is dominated by works from the 50s and 60s, three portraits from 1935 and 36 – “Pat Whalen”, “Max White” and “Elenka” – fit exactly and show how early she started hitting her mature style.

On the way, three small sidebar galleries contain idiosyncratic mixes that move in time. In the home section there are small watercolors from Neel’s love life after Carlos. This is followed by an amazing nude portrait of her second daughter Isabetta from 1934 to 1935, about 6 years old; and a painting of Hartley, their second son and youngest child (with a photographer named Sam Brody) in 1943 as a toddler on a rocking horse staring out with bright blue eyes. It ends with three great still lifes: the 1952 “Cut Glass With Fruit” alongside two from the 1970s, which again defies chronology and the notion that only the late Neel is great.

The Human Comedy section includes tortured artists such as Warhol (1970) and Robert Smithson (1962), but also the more typical suffering of low-income mothers seeking help in the chaotic Well Baby Clinic of 1928-29. His cartoon expressionism spares nothing. Alice is right in the center, wrapping Isabetta.

Art as a story begins with the pairing of Neel’s “Nancy and Olivia”, a portrait of her daughter-in-law and grandson from 1967 with a mother and a child by Van Gogh. “Ninth Avenue El” from 1935 draws on Neel’s distinctive social realism and combines beauty and political commentary. The bright blue twilight sky and dark shadows sparkle while New Yorkers with small skull faces go about their business.

This show is an excavation of its own. It supports recurring visits and careful observance of the text captions. Shoot the portraits in whole and then in parts. For example, look at the strikingly rendered hand and the emotional notes it adds.

Neel’s achievement is celebrated at a moment when figurative painting is on the rise, arguably more prominently than in over 70 years. It expands their cult status and puts them right in the most haunted passages of art – past, present and accommodating.

Alice Neel: People come first

Until August 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.