“Like Chekhov, I am a collector of souls.” Alice Neel (b. 1900, Menon Square, Pennsylvania-1984, New York City) once noted, “If I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.” With intense, feverish coloration reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s peasant paintings, Neel’s portraits are conspicuously anachronic. In contrast to Abstract Expressionism and the Conceptual Art movements popular in the mid-twentieth-century, Neel remained devoted to figurative painting. Her paintings acutely capture marginalized residents of upper Manhattan. Neither too realistic nor fully Expressionist, her works serve both as ethnographic investigations of the milieu and as diary-like accounts of personal encounters and relationships.
Previous: Alice Neel. “Ballet Dancer,” 1950. Oil on canvas. 20.12 x 42.12 in. The Estate of Alice Neel. All images courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, Victoria Miro, London, and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. Above: Alice Neel. “Ian and Mary,” 1971. Oil on canvas. 46 x 50 in. The Estate of Alice Neel.
Curated by Hilton Als, Neel’s retrospective “Alice Neel. Uptown” at David Zwirner Gallery, encompassing five decades of her creative career, is a worthy survey of her neighborhoods. Mapping out the demographics of Spanish Harlem and Upper West Side where she lived respectively from 1938 and 1962 until her death in 1984, Neel painted subjects of intersectional marginal identities of class, gender, and ethnicity. Her portraits range from a black Muslim nationalist taxi driver, a queer Japanese Vogue designer to a Puerto Rican errand boy: these people lived around her every day but had never been seen in the Western canon of art history. Neel once described her work as a visual summary of “what the world has done to them and their retaliation,” presumably referring to colonialism and the rise of the right in the 1960s. Investigating working-class children alongside immigrant intelligentsia in equally conscientious renderings, Neel asserted a sociological, egalitarian, and multicultural approach that countered the dominant high modernism of her time. These portraits, far from elegant, capture a shared sense of earthiness and precariousness living in New York City as minorities. Their shy, imbalanced, awkward bodies cringe, crouch, and shrink on the canvases as if being painted is another kind of displacement.
Neel never generalized while documenting the social conditions of her neighbors. Each subject represents their personal struggle. This rare compassionate sensibility to personal misery may have developed from her own series of traumas in her early adulthood and as a woman painter. Her first daughter died young of diphtheria and her second daughter was taken away by her husband. Suicide attempts and a year-long hospitalization followed. As her daughter-in-law, Ginny Neel later commented, “Alice loved a wretch. She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us.” Contrary to her contemporary Edward Hopper, they do not invoke a sense of existential alienation that tempts the viewer to construct cinematic, urban narratives. Instead, Neel’s renderings offer a confronting intimacy that was cultivated through her real interactions in people. In the gallery exhibition, anecdotes and historical documents are also provided to build a more concrete context to study the environment that these sitters lived in.
The exhibition “Alice Neel, Uptown” is open through April 22, 2017 at David Zwirner Gallery, 525 & 533 West 19th Street, New York.