Who am I? That’s the question self-portraits aim to answer. But what can be said of Alice Neel’s “Self-Portrait” painted in the nude when she was 80?

The work, owned by the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute, is currently showing at the Barbican Centre, London together with 70 of Neel’s better-known portraits of politicians, poets, artists and musicians.

But Neel’s exposed self seems to call out for attention. All she’s wearing are her eyeglasses. Clearly, she’s looking at herself in a mirror with a paintbrush at the ready to capture what she sees.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

What she sees is her aging self, complete with white hair and sagging flesh. Painted in 1980, it’s notable that even though she had been picturing herself for more than half a century, this was the first time she did it stripped.

“Frightful isn’t it?” she asked photographer Ted Castle referring to the portrait. “I love it. At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.”

So, was that her plan, to move art history out of its comfort zone? Carolyn Carr, Deputy Director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, thinks so. She calls the painting “groundbreaking.”

(Reader alert: I don’t agree. More about why in a moment).

CNN reports that in Carr’s lectures to museum goers, she tells them how an “image of a naked elderly female is still not comfortably accepted.

Moreover, it is still not widespread in art history.”

As if to make Carr’s point, Hilton Kramer, once the art critic for the New York Times seemed uncomfortable even when reviewing Neels’s portraits that aren’t nudes.

Kramer called them “coarse...often brutal in observation and completely devoid of delicacy of nuance.”

But wait, Lucien Freud got no such putdown when he painted himself in the nude (“Painter Working, Reflection”) when he was an aging 70.

Standing up for the self

And he isn’t sitting as Neel is, which keeps her lower anatomy hidden. Freud stands full-length in the altogether, facing front, letting it all hang out, except for unlaced boots.

Freud’s nude self-portrait showed at the Royal Academy of Art without a word about how “devoid of delicacy of nuance” it is.

But, to Kramer’s credit, he added this to his view of Neel’s work: "Often the pictures engage one’s interest at a level beyond – or beneath – the esthetic, and are sometimes unforgettable in a way that much finer pictures are not."

Of course, Neel is not the first female to lay her body bare in a painting. Suzanne Valadon did it 64 years earlier in 1916 (“Nude Sitting on a Sofa”) when she was in her forties.

A nude wasn’t something women painted of themselves. Traditionally, undressed females were the province of male artists.

Valadon used to model for male artists and learned from them not to paint women as objects. Her figures routinely show emotional states, and they’re not always appealing.

I’m thinking of “The Blue Room,” a description of a fleshy female lolling on a bed with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

There’s something terribly sad about her.

Whether Neel’s self-portrait is appearing or not is not my issue with it. I question if it’s good artmaking, and it has nothing to do with exposed anatomy or age.

I question the way she rendered herself – less of a painting, and more like a New Yorker cartoon that calls for some jokey caption like, “Who took my shoes?”

If Neel’s plan was to move art history out of its comfort zone with an image of an old woman in the buff, she should have pictured herself with the same care she had for others.

She should have used her expressionistic, painterly style with its distinct brushwork and texture. Instead, you get a sketch of her looking dumbfounded as if she can’t find her shoes.