“Museum-quality” exhibitions at larger galleries have become the norm, but the private sector can still make bolder and nimbler moves than most of our public institutions. A case in point: This miniretrospective of the great Alice Neel, curated by the writer Hilton Als, focuses almost entirely on the white painter’s portraits of people of color. Painted between 1943 and 1978 in Neel’s inimitable style—half social realist, half wonky Expressionist—the paintings and drawings of her uptown friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellow travelers form a remarkable montage of the artist’s life in a vibrant, multicultural 20th-century New York. Everyone in her pictures, from unnamed local children with big eyes to prominent artists and intellectuals of the era, seem keenly, if awkwardly, alive. In a painting dated circa 1950, for example, the African-American writer Harold Cruse—forehead aglow, somber gray suit punctuated by a vivid blue scarf—thoughtfully touches his cheek with his long fingers.
In the early 1960s, Neel’s paintings became brighter and more electrically hued, but she continued to delight in portraying the “other,” including recent immigrants, stoned teenagers, pregnant women and queers. Neel’s sitters, unlike those of, say, Diane Arbus, never seem freakish but rather appear companionable. Ron Kajiwara (1971) shows the graphic designer for Vogue, full-length and seated. His long black hair and coat, crossed legs with jeans tucked into knee-high boots and hand resting archly with knuckles on hip mark him as stylish and fey but never anything less than fully and equally present.