One day, when I was nineteen and had recently moved to New York City to study at the League, I accosted Alice Neel in public to solicit her opinion of a painting I was working on. To be clear, I may have been fueled by youthful impetuousness, but it was not an arbitrary gesture. Neel was one of a handful of preeminent New York figure painters of her generation, and at that time her art appealed to me far more than did the work of traditional portrait painters. Her confirmation mattered to me. Some years later our paths crossed again, albeit less directly; Ms. Neel had died by the time one of her granddaughters sat for me.
Neel was the least conventional of portrait artists, so it’s a little ironic that she ended up painting portraits of famous contemporaries—by virtue of the subject’s notoriety, her painting of Warhol is probably her best known work. But before she was accepted in the high rent district, Neel lived in Spanish Harlem and painted her neighbors. They are the subject of the current exhibition at David Zwirner, Alice Neel, Uptown. Curated by Hilton Als, the show focuses on Neel’s portraits between 1943 and 1979, particularly those of people of color, whose presences have been largely omitted from Western art. If the theme has political undertones, Als notes that Neel’s “work was not marred by ideological concerns; what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered in her studio, on canvas.” The show’s problem, and it is nearly lethal, is its physical presentation. The impact of the paintings is undercut by both the minimalism of the gallery’s design and its warehouse scale. Even the largest canvases are overwhelmed by the space, and all would have benefited from a tighter and more boisterous interplay.
Although born in Pennsylvania, Neel was very much a New Yorker; her forays to a summer cottage in Spring Lake, New Jersey, yielded no series of pastoral reveries. As a young artist she tried numerous styles, by turns painterly, graphic or surreal, and often raw. Neel’s early years were a catalogue of unsettling events, which included a lover who destroyed much of her work and a suicide attempt that resulted in lengthy hospitalization. It’s appropriate to ascribe her belated recognition to misogyny, yet she also didn’t mature as an artist until middle age. Even after she had resolved a preference for portraits set in a shallow space, Neel sought variety through pose, color, and expression. She adapted to the subject and to pictorial demands.
Balancing a measured analysis of the sitter with the impulse for self-projection is a challenge for every painter of portraits, especially for Neel, who studied her subjects with particular intensity, and transcribed them through a filter unlike anyone else’s—it’s fitting that a larger retrospective of her work is simultaneously running at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, France. She claimed to have become subsumed by her subjects while painting them, but that’s hard to believe; one wonders if the subject of Julie and the Doll, the earliest painting here, was as hard-boiled as Neel made her out to be. The miracle is that she didn’t entirely overpower her sitters’ identities. She bade them reveal themselves as she saw them, and a good many of them appear to have responded transparently, if not eagerly. Neel recalled that the youngsters who sat for Two Puerto Rican Boys volunteered to pose after hearing that she had painted Spanish children. Neel was, it may be surmised, looking for people who were as marginalized and as “real” as she was, those whose experiences paralleled her own. One could argue that a woman artist who ignored social expectations was particularly well-positioned to study the impact of those very conventions. How many white women painters in the 1940s, no matter how bohemian, opted for Spanish Harlem over Greenwich Village? Her immediate spiritual predecessor, similarly honest and ballsy, was Suzanne Valadon.
The directness of Neel’s best work is on display here in several remarkable portraits. Anselmo is a sympathetic painting of a neighborhood handyman, its intimacy underscored by the tight cropping of the figure. Horace Cayton, an educator and author, is depicted in a dim light that evokes the kind of apartment familiar to millions of city dwellers (later, Neel’s palette grew more luminous, as in Pregnant Maria, due in part to her transition to a more light-filled apartment). Once you get past the rich painterly properties of Black Spanish-American Family, there are three distinctive personalities to acknowledge. The girls’ expressions suggest too much worldly awareness for their ages, and their mother, seated protectively between daughters, is a closed book. Two Puerto Rican Boys is less densely painted, and has the spontaneous appearance, with its unfinished passages, typical of Neel’s later work. Viewing these, one is struck by their documentary quality, though there is always a life force to Neel’s art that one misses in the era’s editorial and often morose black and white photojournalism. The least characteristic painting here is the most polished, that of Alice Childress, a major actress and playwright, rendered in noble profile. It is one of the few times that the artist seems to have been awed by her subject.
It’s more satisfying to see Neel fully herself, warts and all. There is in her painting an indecipherable mix of the sophisticated and the naive. She often tends toward caricature, making the heads outsized—this had its benefits in the form of establishing an African-American iconography, as in powerful images of Abdul Rahman and Kanuthia—and outlining her subjects’ eye sockets with dark paint while leaving pure canvas for the white portions. Arms and legs are rubbery, and the drawing of hands routinely borders on the tortured, to the extent that they are expository of Neel’s personality rather than revealing her sitters’. If her eccentricities are irksome, fine. Bob Dylan’s voice gets on my nerves, too. Neel was an original.
Als’ appreciation for Neel’s paintings of her Spanish Harlem neighbors is poignant: “There was a quality I shared with her subjects, all of whom were seen through the lens of Neel’s interest, and compassion.” Isolating these portraits from those she painted of white cognoscenti raises interesting and troubling questions. Neel may have been free of overt political agenda, and the catchall designation of social realism hardly seems appropriate. Her interest was psychic complexity, and all the better if she could drill down to discomfort. She painted people who didn’t look like her, and that’s true, insofar as we’re resigned to treating skin color as a defining attribute. Neel painted people who felt like she did, or at least those upon whom she could project her own agitations. Hers is not the most profound portraiture—it tends to be broad in its characterizations, and values the slap over the whisper—but it is personal, vital, and, to use the current term, inclusive. That alone still has the power to gain our attention.
Alice Neel, Uptown, will be at David Zwirner, 525 & 533 West 19th Street, until April 22, 2017.