By PHOEBE HOBAN, APR. 2017
Alice Neel’s quintessential humanism—as meaningful and moving now as it was when she became one of the first artists to sign up for the WPA--leaps off the several dozen canvases at the richly-rewarding Alice Neel show, now in its last week at the David Zwirner gallery. At a time when, thanks to the machinations of the Trump administration, so much of our culture’s hard-won progress in accepting diversity—racial, cultural and sexual--seems gravely at risk, Neel’s passionate engagement with the people and politics of her time provides a palpable visual relief.
Neel was fiercely democratic in her subjects, portraying her lovers, her children, her Spanish Harlem neighbors, pregnant nudes, crazy people, and famous art world figures (including Andy Warhol), in a searing, psychological style uniquely her own. Arrestingly executed and relentlessly honest, Neel’s portraits pack a visceral punch, all the more powerful for being historically resonant.
As I wrote in the opening to my 2010 biography of Alice Neel, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, “Very much in touch with her own time, Neel was also always ahead of it. Although she herself would probably have rejected such labels, she was America’s first feminist, multicultural artist, a populist painter for the ages.”
“Alice Neel, Uptown,” organized by Hilton Als, vividly illustrates this point, through the works themselves and three carefully-curated vitrines of books and ephemera culled from Neel’s archives, which bear evidence to her political and intellectual proclivities, as well as the company she kept. A long-time member of the Communist party, Neel maintained her radical views well into her 80’s; she even participated in a major retrospective of her work in the Soviet Union in 1981, (the first living American artist to do so) travelling there with her entire family. (Some of the books under glass include: “Lenin, A Biography,” by Ralph Fox); “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” by Harold Cruse (a subject of one of the show’s portraits) and “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich,” by Alice Childress, another portrait subject.)
The two-room show takes as its premise Neel’s work after her exodus from the Bohemian hotbed of Greenwich Village in the mid-30s, done in two apartments, both above 100th Street. Each apartment gets its own gallery space, serving as a showcase for the evolution of Neel’s signature style.
By the end of 1938, the artist was ensconced in Spanish Harlem, where she had moved, newly pregnant, with her lover, Jose Santiago Negron, the father of her oldest son, Richard. (Neel was not only open to diversity, she literally embraced it. At 25, she married her first and only husband, artist Carlos Enriquez, soon to become a seminal member of the Cuban modernist movement--as did, briefly, Neel herself. Neel had two daughters with Enriquez, one of whom died as an infant; the other by her own hand in middle age. Her next significant relationship to produce children was with Negron, a Puerto Rican lounge musician, whose large family lived in Spanish Harlem. She had her youngest child, Hartley, with Sam Brody, also on the WPA, an intellectual Jewish filmmaker and photographer.)
Her financial circumstances were perilous, her domestic life volatile, and from the mid 40s through the early 60s she painted in almost complete obscurity, (after a 1950 solo show at the ACA gallery, it was another decade before she had another solo gallery show) but Neel’s art itself flourished in her new uptown environment. She and her two sons (Hartley was born in 1941), lived first in an apartment at 8 East 107th street, and four years later moved to 21 East 108th Street, along with Brody, where she remained for the next two decades, although Brody left a few years earlier. (The earliest work in the show is from 1943, when Neel and her family were living at 108th Street.) As Neel explained about her move to Spanish Harlem, “You know what I thought I would find there? More truth. There was more truth in Spanish Harlem.”
Early portraits of the period—like Julie and The Doll (1943) and Horace Clayton (1949), show her strong roots in Social Realism, the prevalent art movement of the Depression, when Neel first achieved some renown. For the next two dozen years, many of Neel’s subjects would be those who lived immediately around her, from family members to neighbors to people she saw in the street.
Neel’s depiction of children—whom she described as “not contaminated yet” is direct and unsentimental. The double portrait, Two Puerto Rican Boys, 1956, which strongly resembles a later, better-known painting, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem, 1959; and Black Spanish American Family, 1950, which echoes a beautiful portrait of Jose’s sister, Margarita and her family, The Spanish Family, 1943, show her great affinity for the people and the place.
So do her mischievous and memorable portraits (both in paint and ink) of a young neighbor, Georgie Arce, a cunning teen whom Neel took under her wing and who would later be convicted of manslaughter. Neel’s portraits don’t condescend or sentimentalize; rather they reveal, and those of Arce epitomize her ability to nail a personality. Among the strongest portraits in the room are those of Alice Childress, (1950) in brilliantly hued garb and regal pose, and a princely Harold Cruse, (1950) slender and elegant in a grey suit jacket. Ballet dancer, also 1950, with its supple body and skewed limbs, presages Neel’s evolution as she began to loosen up her portraits, outlining them in soft black or trademark indigo blue.
The next room features work from the 1960s and 70s, done at Neel’s final uptown address, 300 West 107th Street, where her later painting style first began to hit stride. The standouts are the frank Pregnant Maria (1964) the first in a genre Neel became famous for—pregnant nudes; Abdul Rahman, (1964) depicted like black royalty; Kanuthia, 1973, with an indisputably dignified bearing, despite his pink suit and chair.
"I paint my time using the people as evidence,” Neel once wrote…"I love, pity, hate, and fear all at once, and try to keep a record." She certainly did. WM
Phoebe Hoban is an American journalist perhaps known best for her biographies of the artists Jean Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel. Her most recent book is "Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open," 2014. Her Basquiat biography, "Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art," came out as an e-book in May 2016.
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