Though it was widely accepted that the artist Alice Neel was a big fibber, her boast that she was “old as the century” was never a falsehood. Born January 28, 1900, she grew up with the twentieth century, and the trajectory of her life – her struggles, her triumphs –twinned that of our country though significant success eluded her until she was in her sixties. Today, her hard gems of truth and beauty continue to find new audiences, most recently via “Alice Neel, Uptown,” an exhibition of her portraits at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. I believe this is because her work, like Neel herself, was not just a product of its time but also ahead of it.
Neel first came on my radar last year, when I was cruising through a gallery of contemporary paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Though I was rushing, I screeched to a full stop in front of “John I. H. Baur,” her 1974 portrait of a former museum department head. With a palette of slate and ochre and a bold, almost slapdash brushstroke, she’d conveyed the man as both an institutional hack and a bemused enabler. It was a funny portrait but rueful and rich, too. I rushed on, but when I saw the Zwirner gallery was hosting a show of her work, I hightailed over not once but thrice. These paintings of her family, neighbors, friends, lovers, and political comrades in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side are not perfect. In some cases, they could ask more; they could tell more. But they grip as few twentieth-century portraits do because they are so vibrant, so cock-sure – and so defiantly resonant.
Though his book, White Girls, offers general cultural commentary, Hilton Als is employed by The New Yorker as a critic of theater, not fine arts. Yet he curated this Zwirner exhibition, perhaps because Neel’s intensely democratic curiosity snags his own. (His book on the topic will be released this June.) In a catalog essay, he shares what this child of West Indian immigrants, raised in deep Brooklyn to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, initially recognized in her work Continue Reading →