Alice Neel

David Zwirner, New York

Alice Neel is hard to place. The New York-based painter, who died in 1984, lived uptown most of her life, but many of her most famous subjects hailed from downtown coteries. Neel must have been hip to get Andy Warhol to relax his guard for her well-known shirtless portrait of him (Andy Warhol, 1970): a study in vulnerability, the work is characteristic of her oeuvre. In light of art history’s obsession with avant-gardism, generally associated with the postwar downtown scene, Neel’s painting is a refreshing example of traditional portraiture’s more radical potential. Yet, the most intriguing portraits in ‘Alice Neel, Uptown’ at David Zwirner – an exhibition curated by Hilton Als of paintings the artist completed while living in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side – are those of subjects far removed from Warhol. I was familiar with Neel’s biographical affiliations with Spanish Harlem; I knew of her portraits of Latinx children; however, the range and quantity of portraits on view reveals her deep imbrication with uptown communities of colour, when so many white artists were focused downtown.

At times, Neel’s figures are cast in celadon greens, as if they had just stepped out of an expressionist Die Brücke painting; rather than reflect social anxieties, though, they reveal the artist’s deep affection for her subjects. The saturated colour of Two Puerto Rican Boys (1956) is redolent of Vincent van Gogh’s later works; they glance in our direction without seeming to return our gaze – an expression that recalls the haughtiness of a Grand Manner portrait and the look of surprise in snapshot photographs.

1978-neeal0004.jpg

Alice Neel, Stephen Shepard, 1978, 81.3 x 61 cm. Courtesy: David Zwirner

Alice Neel, Stephen Shepard, 1978, 81.3 x 61 cm. Courtesy: David Zwirner

Likewise, her portrait of Harold Cruse (1950), the stolid scholar and author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), doesn’t look as you might expect; he is pictured here much younger than usually represented. (Als very aptly installed a case of ephemera in which he has placed Cruse’s controversial book, which called for black-run institutions and rejected the possibility of integration.) Cruse seems preoccupied with thoughts of his future: he had joined the Communist party three years prior but, in the year he sat for Neel, he also served as a covert FBI informant. Even without knowing this history, his worrisome expression conveys a man at the crossroads. The canvas is bifurcated into two colours: the slate grey of Cruse’s suit and the rich sienna brown of his skin bleed into the background, a bilateral manoeuvre that scholars have argued signifies Neel’s assimilation of the Barnett Newman zip. If the zip – Newman’s signature method of dividing his canvases – was the abstract painter’s attempt to resolve the role of humanity in the postwar world, while also exploring the formal dynamics of figure and ground, then Neel’s use of colour and spatial configurations achieves the same with portraiture.

neeal0051a_silo.jpg

Alice Neel, Two Puerto Rican Boys, 1956, 81.3 x 71.1 cm. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York

Ron Kajiwara, 1971. Courtesy: David Zwirner, New York

Many of Neel’s male sitters seem to exude a gay or queer subjectivity, from the beautifully sprawling figure of Ballet Dancer (1950) to the set designer Ron Kajiwara (1971). Kajiwara’s conventionally masculine sports coat contrasts with his feminine long hair, crossed legs and brown leather knee-high boots. As in a number of Neel’s other portraits, Kajiwara’s upper torso is larger than his spindly legs, leaving the weight of his personality to rest mostly in the moody colouration of his face and his hands: posed open in conversation or, perhaps, invitation. His gesture operates outside of the rigid formulations of academic painting – especially portraiture – often used to represent the wealthy and powerful. With their distinctive painterly style, Neel’s portraits explore personalities, rather than physical types; they also memorialize figures historically excluded from the art world, which has long devalued depictions of people of colour, advancing a more capacious vision of community.

Andrianna Campbell is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, USA.

Issue 187

First published in Issue 187

May 2017

Most Read

Highlights from the 2018 edition of Condo London, a collaborative exhibition by 46 galleries across 17 citywide...
Why the 40-year-old Mute record label remains an enigma
Kirsty Bell, Ahmet Öğüt, Ming Wong and Slavs and Tatars share their highlights of the coming year’s shows: can we break...
The New York museum’s introduction of an admission charge shows us the problem with donor dependence and a hands-off...
Remembering the visionary ceramic artist whose aesthetic was that of a painter: ‘Everything she touched was edged with...
Four UK-based museum directors and curators, and a Turner Prize-winning artist, select the shows they are looking...
The best films, books and shows focusing on representations of gay life in 2017
In other news: the inaugural Lahore Biennial will go ahead and the controversially cancelled Max Stern exhibition is...
A year of protest and performance in Los Angeles
Melissa Gronlund on the best of a bad year: from activists in Jakarta, images of Mecca and labour negotiations in the...
In a year marked by natural disasters, some of the best exhibitions in Latin America were attempts to make sense of the...
From Anthropocenic doom in Cecilia Alemani’s Italian Pavilion in Venice to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting...
Contributing editor Max Andrews looks back on 2017, from turbulence in the Catalan capital to Pierre Huyghe’s...
When musical signifiers for sex so often become sonic pornography, LCMF 2017 showed alternative ways of marrying sound...
Our culture is terrified of sexually-awakened girls – controlling the way we look at Thérèse Dreaming would erase...
Where the fight against reactionary conservative activism in Brazil stands ahead of the 2018 presidential elections
In further news: documenta artists protest ‘profit-above-everything’ motive; Monir Museum opens in Tehran; Beijing...
From debates around colonial histories to resonant conversations around precariousness, a year of questioning long-held...
In further news: Abu Dhabi authorities now say they acquired USD$450 million Leonardo; removal of artworks in Catalonia...
A year marked by new visualizations, both controversial and celebrated, of the black body

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018