In 1938 Pennsylvania born Alice Neel, then 38 years old, moved from the relative comfort of Greenwich Village to the edgier district of Spanish Harlem in pursuit of 'the truth'. I can't imagine why any one area is more truthful, or indeed more false, than any other but the work she made there was, if not 'true', certainly eye-catching, beautiful, and often thought-provoking.
She and her lover, Puerto Rican musician Jose Negron, lived in an apartment on East 107th Street. As well as the decade she'd previously spent in NYC she'd also lived in pre-revolutionary Havana with her then husband, the Cuban Carlos Enriquez. This, seemingly, had given her a taste for the 'other' and a dissatisfaction of, an aversion to even, white middle class society. Neel had had a very eventful, and upsetting, life up until this point. She'd lost one daughter, Santillana, to diphtheria when she was just eleven months old and a second daughter, Isabetta, had been taken back to Cuba with Enriquez who'd told her he was going to Paris to look for a house from them to live in as a family. These hugely distressing events led to a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt but, even during such traumatic times (perhaps because of them), Neel kept painting. The now thirty year old woman who'd been told, as a child, by her mother "I don't know what you expect to do in the world, you're only a girl" was nothing if not determined to express herself.
It would be easy, and incorrect I feel, to criticize Neel, a white woman, for exoticising the Latin Americans and blacks of Harlem. It was admirable that she sought to portray a society that had, for the most part been overlooked by her contemporaries, or, often, depicted with patronising sentimentality. Though Neel was interested in politics she remembered, and it shows in her work, that people were, first and foremost, individuals. Endlessly fascinating individuals. Each, like her, with their own passions, fears, neuroses, and histories. Like the younger Diane Arbus she returned, time and time again, to the same subject, the same sitter, as if in an attempt to unravel what she knew to be the unsolvable mysteries of life.
Girl with Pink Flower (1940s)
Building in Harlem (1945)
The Victoria Miro Gallery on Wharf Road, under the curatorial eye of New Yorker and former Village Voice writer Hilton Als, have put together a small, but impressive, collection of her paintings, either acrylic on board or oil on canvas, and it was a pleasure to spend an hour or so in their company. All, except the shadowy, blood-red, Building in Harlem, are portraits and, though they span the best part of forty years, they're all rendered in a style that instantly marks them out as the work of Alice Neel.
That's not to say they're samey. They're not. Girl with Pink Flower's simplicity stands in stark contrast to the more regal portrait of Alice Childress and the pensive, or maybe he's just been to the dentist, pose of Harold Cruse.
Life in 'El Barrio' offered Neel many things. Inspiration, emotional sustenance, an affordable place to live, and, most importantly, another two children. Richard and Hartley Neel were born in 1939 and 1941 respectively. During the time they lived in Spanish Harlem she saw the neighbourhood go from a predominantly Italian enclave to a mostly Latin, particularly Puerto Rican, area. Along the way the Scandinavians, Irish, Jews, and Germans had come and gone in great numbers.
Alice Childress (1950)
Harold Cruse (c1950)
She was not, at this time, a successful artist and was receiving no critical or financial support for her work other than that bestowed upon her by the kindness of friends. Clearly, her twin passions, for humanity and painting, drove her on.
Some of those she painted were friends, some not. Many were notable academics, actors, and authors. Alice Childress (1916-1994) moved to Harlem, from South Carolina, with her grandmother in 1925 and joined the American Negro Theatre. In 1944 she was nominated for a Tony as Best Supporting Actress in a Broadway production of Anna Lucasta but after that she struggled to find worthwhile roles in the theatre that represented the black women she knew. So she began writing herself. She also got involved in social issues and helped unionise actors.
Thoughtful Harold Cruse would go on to become a key figure in the civil rights and black nationalist movements and is best known for his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. He became a member of the Communist affiliated CNA (Committee for the Negro in the Arts), taught at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, and travelled to Cuba in the early 60s, after the revolution.
Horace Cayton is most well known as co-author (with St.Clair Drake) of Black Metropolis:A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, a history of Chicago's South Side from the 1840s to the 1930s.
Neel doesn't raise these people above the status of Julie (and her doll) or Anselmo, a neighbour who helped her out with jobs around the house and building bookshelves. She accords each sitter their own individuality. Snowflake has become an insult bandied about by right-wingers towards liberals these day but each snowflake, famously, is unique - as is each person. Neel let personality, rather than status, dictate her portraiture. She doesn't seem like the kind of person who'd take the word snowflake as an insult. Her work is all the better for it.
Julie and the Doll (1943)
Horace Cayton (1949)
In September 1962 Neel was relocated by her landlord from Spanish Harlem to a larger apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side. The new place allowed for more generous helpings of light and you can see in the later portraits how that's poured into her work. The Upper West Side was just as diverse as Spanish Harlem had been. Jewish and Ukrainian families had long made up the majority of the populace but, by the 50s and 60s, the influx of Cubans and African Americans had further diversified the area.
Three years earlier Neel had appeared in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's 1959 avant-garde film Pull My Daisy and this increased her visibility as an artist. She'd made a portrait of the artist Robert Smithson while still living in El Barrio but her 1970 likeness of Andy Warhol, all pallid skin, moobs, and scars, certainly got more people to take notice of her.
Celebrity portraits weren't, for the most part, her thing though. Pregnant Maria was a friend of Neel's. Stephen Shepard (yes) was an art student, Ed Sun went to medical school with her son Hartley, Neel met Kinuthia when, in 1973, she travelled to Africa. He was a local radio host and had arranged an exhibition of her work in Nairobi.
The 'Woman' in the 1966 portrait is Ujjaini Khanderia, daughter of the Indian social-realist novelist Bhabani Bhattacharya, who was, at the time studying at the University of Michigan and suffering enormous homesickness for India. Ron Kajiwara (seemingly sat atop a chair on loan from Van Gogh) and his family had been detained in a California internment camp during World War II but later became a design director for Vogue before, in 1990, dying of AIDS, and sweet and innocent Benjamin was simply the son of the superintendent of Neel's apartment building south of Morningside Heights where she lived until her death in 1982.
Again, no portrait stood on ceremony alone. Each sitter was treated with respect and rendered lovingly. They may be what we'd call these days psychological portraits but, unlike some works that get labelled that, it's hard to imagine the sitters being anything less than thrilled by the finished result. All of the works are both beautiful and dignified. They present themselves to you, unflinchingly, in an instant yet you could look at them time and again and still not quite know what's fully going on. In that the portraits that Alice Neel made are very much like people themselves. Complicated, mysterious, alluring, and always the focus of one's eye.
Pregnant Maria (1964)
Stephen Shepard (1978)
Ed Sun (1971)
Ron Kajiwara (1971)
As a coda to the exhibition there's a couple of Perspex covered tables where you can peer at literature relevant to the work and the times. Works by Harold Cruse, Alice Childress (her young adult fiction A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich whose title later found itself co-opted by both The Goats and House of Pain), Horace R Cayton, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin sit next to the less obvious tomes of W E B Dubois and Jean-Paul Sartre. There's a Lenin biography and a letter from Neel asking Fidel Castro if she could paint him.
Neel's politics were no doubt very important to her but it seems, from looking at this small retrospective, that, for her, the political always stemmed from the personal. The love of humanity really shines through in this lovely, and free, exhibition.