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‘Alice Neel, Uptown’ at the Victoria Miro

10 June 2017 Laura Garmeson

Alice Neel’s portraits are love letters to twentieth-century New York. Born in Philadelphia in 1900, she led a bohemian life in Greenwich Village until the strength of her social conscience eventually drew her to Spanish Harlem. There in ‘El Barrio’ she painted bold, figurative portraits of her friends, neighbours and acquaintances, many of them members of Harlem’s immigrant community. ‘Alice Neel, Uptown’ is a new exhibition of these portraits at the Victoria Miro Gallery, curated by celebrated New Yorker writer Hilton Als.

In Hilton Als’ luminous series of texts accompanying Alice Neel, Uptown, he describes the essayist’s task in these words: ‘the essay is not about the empirical “I” but about the collective – all the voices that made your “I”.’ He sees a similar inclusivity in the portraits of Alice Neel, whose work defies the familiar trope of the artist whose ego looms large over every subject. ‘The pictures were a collaboration, a pouring in of energy from both sides – the sitter’s and the artist’s.’ Each of the portraits in Alice Neel, Uptown is a story told on canvas. But Neel didn’t use sitters to indirectly tell her own stories. She painted people as they were.


Image courtesy of Alice Neel and Victoria Miro
 
Alice Neel was an unusual painter for several reasons. She worked quickly, forgoing preliminary sketches, and her stylized figures in broad brushstrokes with almost cartoon-esque hard, dark outlines somehow captured a social realism that many of her contemporaries in the art world either failed or refused to see. The inclusive nature of Neel’s painting process is due to personal curiosity, first and foremost. She was deeply interested in her sitters and their lives. But her art was also highly political, particularly after she moved to the Upper West Side just south of Harlem in 1962. It was here that she painted James Farmer, a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr., and his family, at a time of particularly fraught race relations in the US.


Image courtesy of Alice Neel and Victoria Miro

 
In the 1940s and ’50s, many of the people Neel chose to paint were the marginalized local Harlemites who didn’t necessarily have a voice in wider society, but whose portraits allowed them to speak for themselves. In this exhibition, actresses, writers and intellectuals feature alongside art students and taxi-drivers. Unusually for a white artist in America at the time, her subjects are matter-of-factly multi-racial, and her portraits show ‘the humanness embedded in subjects that people might classify as “different”’, as Als writes. Spanish Harlem came to embody this “difference” for Neel, a quality she had failed to find in the whiter and wealthier Greenwich Village.
 
Each of Neel’s oil paintings retains its own character and unique emotional patina. A young girl in a turquoise dress looks warily toward the viewer clutching a little blonde doll. Taxi-driver and self-described Black Muslim nationalist Abdul Rahman smiles calmly beneath a high forehead and above his ochre shirt. A young boy in blue – Benjamin, the son of the superintendent in Neel’s building – is the picture of innocence, his almond-shaped eyes watchful and curious, meeting the artist’s gaze.


Image courtesy of Alice Neel and Victoria Miro
 
Neel often used the physicality of her subjects as a subtle means of expression. She was a great painter of hands – to rival other hand-obsessives like Egon Schiele – and used their emotive power to great effect. In her portrait of actress and playwright Alice Childress the subject sits with hands regally clasped, wearing a large and theatrical medallion necklace. A portrait of Neel’s neighbour Anselmo, who used to help her put up bookshelves, shows his hands relaxed and at ease supporting his head, while the awkward curled fingers of Girl with Pink Flower perfectly convey the gaucheness of adolescence.


Image courtesy of Alice Neel and Victoria Miro
 
Some of Neel’s sitters were prominent writers and intellectuals in the Civil Rights movement. One of her most powerful portraits is of Harold Cruse, who authored The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1967. Neel’s interest in Cruse sprang from his involvement with Harlem and its place in the history black America. In her painting of Horace Cayton, a sociologist, columnist and author who co-authored a ground-breaking study of race and history of the Chicago South Side, the dramatic lighting makes his face seem almost sculptural, the two furrows etched between his eyebrows appear stern and weary, rings glinting on tense fingers.
 
Alice Neel remained politically engaged for much of her life. In 1971 she picketed the Whitney Museum of American Art over the lack of black art experts among the curators. Only three years later Whitney went on to stage a retrospective of her work. Neel’s enduring belief – that ‘the world existed on its own terms’ and we have a duty to know as much about it as possible – is the lingering message of Alice Neel, Uptown; a masterful hymn to the ‘collective “I”’ of New York.
 
Alice Neel, Uptown is on display at Victoria Miro until July 29. Entry is free!

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