Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle opens at the Barbican Art Gallery this week. The exhibition is the study of American figurative painter Alice Neel (1900-1984), who Barbican Artistic Director Will Gompertz describes as ‘a radical, creative artist undervalued for much of her six-decade career’. Neel painted vibrant portraits chronicling the life she lived, the places she spent time in and the people she met along the way. She persevered with her distinctive figurative expressionistic style when abstraction was in fashion resulting in her lack of recognition until later in her life.
‘I am a collector of souls …I paint my time using the people as evidence’. Alice Neel
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, although it starts with her 1980 Self-portrait, which took five years to complete as she found painting it ‘so damned hard’. The work is acclaimed for ‘telling it as it is’. It is the only painting on the wall in one of the Barbican Art Gallery’s upstairs mini spaces with a quote on another. “All my life, I wanted to do a nude self-portrait, but I put it off till now when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity”. Neel was 80 when she finished the painting, showing herself as a flushed-faced nude seated on the edge of her favourite blue striped chair that features in so many of her later portraits, brush in one hand, a piece of cloth in the other as she stares out at the viewer. This is Neel’s painting at its finest, and the upstairs galleries take the viewer on a journey through her life, experimenting with different styles until she finds the one she is most comfortable with in the 1950s.
Her life is very much tied up with the paintings she produced. Born in a small, conservative town in Pennsylvania with little by way of culture, she knew from a very young age that she wanted to be an artist.
In 1921 she enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and in the summer of 1924, while at the Chester Springs Summer School, she met and fell in love with the Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez Gómez. The pair married in 1925 and, the following February went to live in Havana. In Cuba, the couple painted constantly. A portrait of a woman from this era is reminiscent of Gwen John, whereas the portrait of Enriquez, with its broad strokes, is more like a Soutine. Unfortunately, the marriage wasn’t to last as they were beset with problems. First struggling with poverty on their return to the US and, subsequently, the tragic death of their first daughter just before her first birthday and following the birth of a second daughter. When Neel had a nervous breakdown in 1930, Enriquez moved back to Havana, taking their second daughter Isabetta with him.
In 1931 when she moved to Greenwich Village, she started to paint the beatnik community around her. She mixed with artists, writers, and poets, painting portraits of many of them. She was introduced to members of the Communist Party. In the 1930s, her work became political, painting street demonstrations, particularly those against the rise of right-wing movements around the world.
In 1938 after meeting a Puerto Rican nightclub called José Negrón, she moved to East (Spanish) Harlem and stayed in the area long after the relationship ended. It was here that she connected with the people around her, those she met on the streets and consequently, her style became defined. Here we begin to see the strong black outlines, broad brushstrokes, intense stares, and the expressive positions of hands that define her work for the next few decades. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Neel painted people whom she admired for their political commitments. The single portraits from the late 40s have a Max Beckman feel, with strong black outlines and vacant stares. Her 1950 portrait of the communist intellectual Harold Cruse feels like a defining moment. The viewer is drawn to the eyes and hands. It is the simple gestures and intense stare that connect the viewer to the subject. This is especially true of the portrait of the youth Georgie Arce No, 2, 1955. Along with single portraits, Neel also paints family groups and duos such as Black Spanish-American Family, 1950 and the intimate pairing of Rita and Hubert 1954. Rita looks lovingly towards her partner, and you can feel the touch of her unseen hand on his side.
After beginning to see a therapist in 1958, she became more ambitious with her work approaching the poet Frank O’Hara, who was then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, to sit for her. The resulting portrait is reminiscent of early Kokoschka with its sketchy hands, expressionistic lined face and earthy colours.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, a swathe of sitters came to her apartment. She set up an easel in the middle of her living room, and the resulting work comes into its own. The same green sofa, blue-striped armchair, and other chairs reoccur in numerous paintings that fill the lower galleries. The compositions are consistent, with a plain background, single figures, duos or groups taking the centre ground and gazing out at the viewer. Hands are delicately placed on the arms of chairs, in laps, touching faces or legs. Where she paints more than one figure, the closeness between the sitters is evident. The paintings of mothers and children reveal a particular tenderness.
In 1970, she famously painted Andy Warhol. The painting appears unfinished, with the sofa a mere outline, a minimal background, and his hands roughly sketched. It is all about the face and Warhol’s semi-dressed state, revealing the scars he received from the 1968 attempted assassination by Valerie Solanas, a former member of The Factory entourage. Unusually, Warhol has his eyes shut. You feel his vulnerability in exposing his scars and the surgical corset he was now forced to wear. It remains a compelling image.
Alongside Warhol, Neel painted other Factory associates such as poet and photographer Gerard Malanga in 1969 and Jackie Curtis as a boy in 1972, one of Warhol’s superstars and star of Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971).
Her paintings epitomise the phrase ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’. Neel herself declared, ‘I am a collector of souls …I paint my time using the people as evidence’.
Words/Photos © Artlyst 2023
Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle, Barbican Art Gallery 16 February – 21 May 2023
Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle published by Prestel £24.99