Alice Neel was the chronic chronicler of New York. The painter (1900-1984) depicted the wretched and the beautiful of her chunk of the city, all with a mixture of playful colourism, haunting realism, and touching tenderness. This gorgeous show upstairs at Victoria Miro is like a mini-museum exhibition, focusing on subjects who Neel returned to repeatedly. Each portrait of a sitter is accompanied by another of the same person, done at a different time, at a different point in their lives.
Most are deeply personal: children, nephews, lovers, parents. Their changing, ageing features are reflected in Neel’s changing, ageing style and approach. Her lover John is ghostly, dreamy and expressionistic in 1933, but clear, sombre and cool in 1949. Her sons Hartley and Richard are dark, sharp-featured and thickly painted as kids, but bright, light and breezy as young adults. To see the works like this, next to each other, is to see the people she loved grow, but to see her grow too; they do it together.
They’re paintings of a relationship, that’s what all these works are.
It helps that she’s such an interesting painter, almost like a ludicrously talented caricaturist, zeroing in on extreme details, like John’s long, deep nostril, Georgie’s gorgeous, strong hands, Julian’s weird, wobbly, cartoon arm. Endless details, only possible because Neel felt such a connection with these sitters.
The only real dud is a work where it’s obvious there’s no love. The second portrait of Ellie Poindexter is a rushed, ugly, haggard mess. You’d only depict someone like that if you absolutely hated them. It’s so bad it looks like I did it, and I can’t paint.
But then there’s Sam, Neel’s long time partner. She captures a level of sombre grumpiness and long faced sullenness in him that can only come from putting up with someone, and really looking at them, for a very, very long time. They’re paintings of a relationship, that’s what all these works are: portraits of love.