UNTIL 29TH JULY 2017
Curated by the (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer Hilton Als, and coming from David Zwirner in New York, Alice Neel’s deeply humanistic portraits at Victoria Miro travel with her from Spanish Harlem (where she lived for 24 years) to the Upper West Side as she painted friends and neighbours, famous and unknown.
You cannot escape the fact that Alice (as a white, middle class woman) has painted people from all walks of life- and that is to say, all different races. In fact, that is part of her charm and importance. This shouldn’t be noteworthy, but it is. It is noteworthy that a white woman of her time would be painting people of colour, a departure from the entire canon of Western art in itself- and all at a time when formalism and abstraction was all the rage. These were the immigrants, the Latinos, the Asians and the blacks. Aka The Other America. She continued doing this no matter where she lived, despite not gaining recognition until the late 60s (by which time she was almost 70). Hilton Als, author of White Girls, was going to call the exhibition Coloured People, which I suppose would’ve gotten straight to the point. But the title he settled upon, Uptown, is much more fitting with Alice Neel- charming without denying her position as a voice and painter of diversity.
The ground floor displays work from the 1940’s- early 60’s in East Harlem, during a changeable period of leftist politics, civil rights and the black nationalist movements such as the Black Panther Party. The FBI kept Neel under temporary surveillance in the 1950s, denoting her a ‘deviant’ in relation to her communist interests. Here is Harold Cruse, a key intellectual figure, critic and co-founder of Harlem’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School, and author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967). But this 1950 portrait anticipates that groundbreaking book whilst portraying Cruse head in hand, burdensome but taking up the whole canvas with his imposing presence, almost embodying the very title of his future book.
The upper floor shows work from 1964-1976 after she moved to the Upper West Side. The difference is stark and (perhaps controversially?) I prefer these. Whilst the ground floor retains the raw sensibility of working class life, the Upper West Side era is sensitive, the paint is freer and lighter as she does away with the imposing black contours. But on both floors you get a distinct presence of both sitter and painter, and the dynamic between them.
This is Benjamin, the son of the superintendent of the building she moved to in 1962, and remained until her death in 1984. He shrinks back into the small blue canvas, cock-eyed and unsure, probably very uncomfortable at sitting for a portrait. But the result is so completely touching. Each portrait is a psychological study into her sitter. In the upper floor especially, you can see her favourite technique of altering the proportions (aka squishing grown adults into the frame and sometimes abandoning traditional perspective altogether) in favour of portraying the psychological nuances of the person infront of her.
In 1974 she was given an retrospective at the Whitney, where Hilton Als (then just a teenager) first encountered her. Being a gay, African American son of a single mother he was struck by how he recognized these people on the walls- the working classes he saw everyday in Manhattan, and the unseen of art history. The current exhibition is intrinsically linked to the affinity Als feels with Alice Neel, using her paintings as an illustration of his life.
The exhibition debuted at David Zwirner during a politically tense but perhaps poignant time in New York, when debates about cultural appropriation were on the high during the backlash from the Dana Schutz “scandal”. Why should Alice Neel be any different? But she is. Because her subjects aren’t standing for an ideology or a cause – they just exist.
List of works here