Alice Neel: Uptown
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Alice Neel didn’t paint portraits of people. When you look at one of her canvases, you’re not just seeing that one person – you’re seeing a whole world, condensed down to lines and colour. Her paintings are portraits of a city, portraits of life, portraits of time; they’re full landscapes, visual essays.
Pulitzer-winning theatre critic Hilton Als has brought together a handful of her works for this show at Victoria Miro. It’s meant to open a big glorious window into her life in New York’s Harlem and Upper West Side, but it only manages to tweak the curtain.
Neel had lived a tumultuous life – poverty, heartbreak, a nervous breakdown, depression, more heartbreak, more poverty and a heroin-addled boyfriend who torched hundreds of her paintings and drawings. But she found something in Harlem, something intangible among the vast groupings of recent and not-so-recent immigrants from across the globe.
This was a world away from the bohemian vibes of Lower Manhattan, and a galaxy away from the art of her contemporaries – Neel was after something different, something real.
The first room in the show is filled with work from the 1940s, documenting the political agitators, dancers, actors and neighbourhood characters of her bit of Harlem. They’re dark paintings, filled with shadows and sadness, but strength and confidence too. They show a bit of New York that was riven by poverty, a section of society fighting against inequality and oppression, people trying to live in a world that just wanted to hold them back.
Upstairs, light floods her paintings from the 1960s. The times were changing, she’d moved to a new area, met new people, encountered new immigrants from new places. The eyes pierce you, the colours envelop you.
Just as every sitter tells a story about New York, each painting tells an even bigger story about life. Look at how Neel paints hands: they can be long slender constructions that reach out and grasp, or tight balls of anger; thick clumps of pain, or easy knots of confidence. From micro to macro, everything here has something to say.
The only problem is, it doesn’t say enough of it. There are only a handful of paintings here, hung pointlessly sparsely. I want to feel immersed in Neel’s world, but I barely get to peek in. It feels like only half an exhibition. Neel is a special artist, but this show isn’t quite special enough.