Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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Born in 1900, Alice Neel painted figuratively in New York during a period in which it was deeply unfashionable to do so. The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theatre and a battleground,’ reads the opening card of Helen Levitt’s In The Street. But when I thought about that, I got confused, because it included almost everybody I really enjoyed ! She had been under investigation since 1951 for suspected links through friends and acquaintances, although had never formally joined the organisation.

Speaking on her pregnant nudes, Neel said, “It isn’t what appeals to me, it’s just a fact of life… I feel as a subject it’s perfectly legitimate, and people out of a false modesty, or being sissies, never show it… Something that primitives did, but modern painters have shied away from because women were always done as sexual objects. Here he sits in a surgical truss, blanket-stitch sutures still bright from the operation that saved him from Valerie Solanas’s attempt to kill him with her gun. In the Barbican’s final room, a portrait of Gus Hall, leader of the Communist Party USA, sits beside one of porn activist Annie Sprinkle in full fetish gear. She began in earnest as a painter in Cuba alongside her husband Carlos Enríquez, creating intense, fluid portraits of him and people she encountered in Havana. Alice Neel (1900–1984) worked in New York at a time when figurative painting was deeply unfashionable.In another documentary about Neel’s life, Richard, sitting beneath the portrait of himself, talks about how he hates Bohemians, too. The artist’s second portrait of Frank O’Hara, the poet laureate of Abstract Expressionism and the movement’s most unflinching supporter at the Museum of Modern Art, is depicted here warts—or rather pallid freckles—and all. She was “utterly myself”, she said, when she painted and sought to tell her truth with the brush, even seeing it as a form of therapy. It starts in Havana, where Neel moved with her first husband in 1926 – at a time when women still weren’t really meant to paint – with a couple of hazy, sludgy portraits. Sure, artists had painted people for centuries, millennia even, but in a time of wild, gestural, emotional artistic experimentation, Neel’s portraiture dragged the focus back down to earth, back to the homes, the bedrooms and the streets of everyday people.

Sign up to unlock our digital magazines and also receive the latest news, events, offers and partner promotions. The following decade Neel was investigated by the FBI, having been identified as a “romantic Bohemian type Communist”. Nick Moss reviews Hot Off the Griddle , an exhibition of Alice Neel's art at the Barbican Art Gallery, till 21st May 2023.

The Harlem portraits that feature alongside In The Street —of a young Georgie Acre, Neel’s neighbour who would later go to prison for murder, holding a knife and wearing a costume necklace; of a Spanish family sitting on a stoop in front of a lattice gate—are from just moments in a career that spanned the 20th Century (Neel was born in 1900). Crowned the "court painter of the underground,” her canvases celebrate those who were too often marginalised in society: labour leaders, Black and Puerto Rican children, pregnant women, Greenwich Village eccentrics, civil rights activists and queer performers. She resumed painting after a stay in a psychiatric hospital, and moved to Greenwich Village in 1931.

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