As the 1930s were exploding with cubism and abstraction and geometric modernism, Alice Neel was doing something radical of her own: painting people.
Sure, artists had painted people for centuries, millennia even, but in a time of wild, gestural, emotional artistic experimentation, Neel’s portraiture dragged the focus back down to earth, back to the homes, the bedrooms and the streets of everyday people. The American painter was saying ‘Who needs abstractions or modernism when just existing is a political act?’
So this big show explores the hopes, dreams and lives of the people in her life. It starts in Havana, where Neel moved with her first husband in 1926 – at a time when women still weren’t really meant to paint – with a couple of hazy, sludgy portraits.
But it’s her move to New York in 1931 after a messy divorce and a nervous breakdown that gave the world the Alice Neel we know. The city is as much a part of her art as her sitters and colours. These early-ish paintings are dark and weird, capturing the bohemian eccentricity of downtown New York. Joe Gould has three knobs, couples lounge in the nude, bored, exhausted, all thick lines and distended features in a world of freedom and ennui. It’s the proper beginning of the Neel aesthetic.
These are people hustling and struggling, living on the edge
The great depression leads to some overtly political street-scene works, but they’re pretty awful: badly executed and ugly. They say way less about the state of American life than her portraits, especially the depictions of her new Harlem neighbours. She paints the poor communities of her adopted home with tender sadness and absolutely heaps of empathy. The young Black family is almost shimmering with tension: the mother with her kids is wracked with worry, the boy with his knife is threatening yet tender. These are people hustling and struggling, living on the edge.
But it’s not all just everyday New Yorkers. Neel was a dedicated communist when that was a very dangerous thing to be in the USA (even getting her some unwelcome visits from the FBI), so she painted leftwing intellectuals like Harold Cruse and her future partner Sam Brody. Then she paints Andy Warhol and the poet Frank O’Hara, she paints the activist Mother Bloor and she paints a taxi driver. She paints artists, she paints her kids.
It’s that mixture, that bubbling melting pot of every aspect of everyday life, that makes her art work. You see the good and bad, the highs and lows, the streets and the lecture theatres of New York all thrown together without barriers or boundaries.
Her mature work from the 1960s onwards is where the art starts to match up to the ideas. It’s lighter, quicker, surer, more immediate. They aren’t all good paintings, some are even absolutely terrible (*cough* Frank O’Hara *cough*), but Neel’s canvases are a level playing field where everyone is invited. The gorgeous image of an Indian mother and child is so calm and kind, the injured Warhol is so vulnerable and open, ‘Jackie Curtis as a Boy’ is so aloof and strong.
All these pale paintings spinning around you with their cool blues and soft browns are a universe of tender honesty and open-hearted artistic generosity. Even when the paintings are bad – and, again, there are lots of those here – Alice Neel’s idea of putting the human first, of celebrating the subject, hits home, and hits hard.
This isn’t art about Neel or her ego, it’s art about people, about how they’re good and kind and flawed and how they’re all quite beautiful, even the ugly ones.