The painter Alice Neel (1900–1984) only started to be recognized as a visionary after her time had passed. Her first major exhibition came when she was already 71 years old, at her alma mater, the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. An exhibition titled “Alice Neel: The Painter of Modern Life” opened last year at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, in the Netherlands, 32 years after the artist’s passing. Neel’s work wasn’t recognized in its time for the same reason it’s so celebrated now: Her expressionistic paintings are less about formal innovation than they are about the cast of characters that inhabit her canvases. She painted neighbors, sex workers, and museum curators with the same generous brushstrokes.
Even though Neel grew up in a straight-laced, middle-class household, she went on to lead a life surrounded by the artists and activists who ignited the social change that would define the century. She developed the foundations of her political consciousness when she moved to Havana with her first husband, the Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez, and her commitment to left-wing politics continued after she separated from Enriquez and moved to Greenwich Village in the Thirties. Though she would go on to paint influential sitters like Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, and former New York Mayor Ed Koch, she mostly captured the left-wing writers, artists, and trade unionists she associated with.
The latest exhibition of her work, “Alice Neel, Uptown,” picks up after Neel left Greenwich Village, in 1938. She had labeled the Village a “honky-tonk,” and moved to Spanish Harlem with her lover, Puerto Rican musician José Negron, in search of a new experience. The show includes a selection of pieces made during the five decades Neel lived in Upper Manhattan. (After Harlem, she moved to the Upper West Side.) In that span, she continued her habit of painting the figures in her midst, most of whom were people of color.
What distinguishes the current show are the eyes through which we see Neel’s work. The exhibition is curated by Hilton Als, himself an artist of color whose writings earned him acclaim at a much earlier age than Neel. Als has been on staff at the New Yorker since 1994, and the transgressive poetics of his observations on race, gender, and sexuality have consolidated his name among black and white audiences alike. (Last year, he was listed as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.) Though Als’s stature adds an element of star power to the show, the experience is more of a dialogue than a monograph — one in which Neel is as much Als’s subject as Neel’s sitters were hers.
The work in “Alice Neel, Uptown” exists in twofold: There is the exhibition of Neel’s paintings, and then there is the accompanying publication in which her portraits are presented alongside Als’s essays — writings that bring Als, Neel, and her sitters on the same page. As a figure on the canvas, Alice Childress is simply a woman of stature looking expectantly toward a window. But in Als’s description, she’s refracted through memories of Childress’s work as an author and a playwright. In speaking about Childress’s 1973 novel, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, Als says, “I was a kid when I read it, and to this day I can recall the horror and sadness I felt as I poured over those pages; it was like looking at the world I grew up in, when so many boys my age didn’t make it.”
Als and Neel share a philosophy that, by studying and depicting the sitters, the artists would understand more about the world and their selves. The melancholy eyes of the boy in Neel’s Call Me Joe reminds Als of the contemporaries he lost to the AIDS crisis; he writes, “It is important to live with voices, with absences, and I’m drawn to this way of thinking because, as life progresses, there are more and more voids, and they are painful to hold onto without something — some meaning — to anchor the spirit in this spiritless arena of loss.” But Joe’s eyes don’t just reflect the loss of the AIDS generation; they also evoke the tough lessons Harlem boys like him would inevitably learn in life. “I know Joe knew something about loss,” Als notes. “He was colored and male and tender, and how much did that matter in the world?”
Looking at these figures on the white walls of a Chelsea gallery — one that mostly represents white artists — also raises the question: For whose eyes are these faces presented, then or now? (The show’s working title was “Colored People,” nodding frankly to the white eyes viewing its subjects, although Als says it felt too literal in the end.) Neel herself was an educated white woman living in immigrant and black neighborhoods. Even though she was a single mother with her own sets of difficulties, she had the privilege to choose where to live, whereas those she lived with had no choice but to stay where they were. Als, for his part, as a writer who has been embraced for the boundaries he breaks, has long negotiated blackness in white environments, and successfully so. Both Neel and Als observe their worlds with foreign eyes — a position that has benefitted their art, not lessened it.
And it’s here where the true parallel between Als and Neel emerges: They are both essayists in the pure sense of the word. Essayists are active observers, who blend what they see in others with what transpires within themselves, who understand the inner workings of an event because they’re always watching from the perimeter. It’s for this reason that those who get to paint the portrait of the times are often standing on the sidelines — they are the outsiders, foreigners, those who do not blend in comfortably with the social fabric they’re trying to capture. As Als describes in his introduction to the publication: “The essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but about the collective — all the voices that made your ‘I.’ ” Als and Neel, as the best essayists do, put this dictum into practice, observing and understanding others through the self, and making us understand ourselves through the souls they capture.
‘Alice Neel, Uptown’
525 and 533 West 19th Street
Through April 22