Alice Neel : The ‘real life’ of painting. On the event of the forthcoming exhibition, ‘The Subject and Me’ at the Talbot Rice Gallery
by Maro Psyrra
From the 1960s onward, when the new, expressive forms of performance, installation and new media art “invaded” art, the interest in pictorial creation was rekindled, mostly on a theoretical level. Both in Europe and the US, theorists and art historians (the most characteristic example perhaps being that of Greenberg[i]) re-examined the engravings and the historical framework of modern painting and acknowledged artists who, up until that moment, had not established themselves in the new art market.
One of them was the American painter Alice Neel who had, since the 1930s, been producing artworks and been active in exhibitions.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1900, Neel became renowned for her dynamic, “democratic” portraits which spanned approximately seven decades of important socio-political changes: Neel painted through the Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution of the 60s, feminism, and the feverish 80s[ii]. In this context, the artist remained loyal to the art of painting, using the portrait as her main expressive medium. While living through the transition from the modern art of the historical avant-gardes to the new artistic field of the 1960s, she nevertheless maintained a personal artistic idiom, portraying a wide array of people with whom she developed relationships to greater and lesser degrees. She portrayed her lovers, her neighbours, pregnant nudes, sick people, porn stars, and famous figures in the art world.
In a recent article Jeremy Lewison[iii] wonders ‘how would you define Alice Neel?’, and the question he poses is in need of a more complex answer. Neel’s works drift between realism and expressionism while her pictorial style evokes the Northern European artistic tradition. Many researchers see in her works a deep relationship with modern art – influences from Edvard Munch, Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin – which gradually lessen over time. There is also noticeable influence from Latin American art evident in her work. Neel was married to the Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez and lived for many years (during the 1950s) in New York’s Spanish Harlem, where she came into contact with the Puerto Rican community and radical New York figures such as the playwright Robert Frank and beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Neel revealed, with regard to her decision to move to Spanish Harlem, that ‘in a sense, there is more truth in the ghettos now than there is in all these festival places’[iv]. Thus, orientated towards a quest for a different truth, she created some of her most popular portraits in that area. These reflect the artist’s bohemian lifestyle and also the influence that leftist political ideology had on her. Neel recorded her own personal experience, painting her children (e.g. Dominican Boys on 108th Street, 1955), the poor families of the area, patients in bed (e.g. T.B. Harlem, 1940), without merely capturing images of her surroundings. Her works can be seen as critical comments on her contemporary reality, the harsh living conditions in the area, and at the same time they comprise a log on the life of immigrants in the neighbourhoods of New York.
None of these paintings was a commission. Neel belonged to no groups, and was working alone in a period when American art was dominated by abstract expressionism and pop. The following decade, the 60s, found her in a very different position. The socio-political uproar on a global level – the student revolts, May of 1968, the massive demonstrations against the Vietnam war and, mainly, the demands of the feminist movement – were nodal points for the re-examination of the totality of Neel’s work. She ceased being considered a painter on the “margin” but a contemporary creator, who expressed the demands of the era. In particular, the feminist movement supported the artist and made her an icon for her propagation of their stances.
Subsequently, with the Upper West Side as her base, in the 1960s and 1970s Neel created a series of dynamic portraits of artists, curators and gallery owners, among them Frank O'Hara, Andy Warhol, and the young Robert Smithson. She also maintained her practice of painting political personalities, including black activists and supporters of the women's movement. Her palette became more vivid, with intense colours, figures dominated the surface while the background of the painting is unembellished or sometimes non-existent. Her first important exhibition, in 1974 in Whitney, came during the same period.
The Subject and Me at the Talbot Rice Gallery tells the story of the turbulent events that shaped Alice Neel’s life, through a retrospective of drawings and selection of late paintings. Emphasising the psychological perception that would allow Neel (1900-1984) to produce some of the most striking and resonant portraits of the twentieth century, the exhibition offers candid observations of sexuality, family, childhood, pain and poverty. It is also an important subjective document of life in post-war America.
Alice Neel: The Subject and Me
Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh
Duration: 29 July - 8 October 2016
More about Alice Neel
[i] In his 1961 essay on “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) defined “Modernism” as the period (in art) roughly from the mid-1850s to his present that displayed a self-critical tendency in the arts.
[ii] For more: Patricia Hills, Alice Neel, Contemporary Artists Series, The American studies collection, H.N. Abrams, 1983
[iii] Lewison, Jeremy. 'Beyond the pale: Alice Neel and her legacy'. Art & Australia, vol. 48, no. 3, 2011, pp.502-13.
[iv] Quoted in Susan Rosenberg, 'People as Evidence', Temkin, ed., 2000, p.43.
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