In the space between the bohemian Greenwich Village, the Latin Harlem and the more established Upper West Side, Alice Neel (1900-1984) managed to x-ray the cares and desires of all of New York, her incandescent life, without the need to capture a single skyscrapers on his canvases. Neel portrayed the psychic presence, often stubborn resistance, of his neighbors or lovers, but also the breath of a society devoted to metamorphoses. She was a traveling companion of the workers’ struggle in the Great Depression, of the empowerment of women and later that of the LGTBI community, of the timid epiphany of migrants. Also witness to cycles of violence and blood and the triumph of civil rights. Always on the left – sometimes dangerously, as when in 1935 he portrayed Pat Whalen, a communist and union leader, in a country that would soon drag its feet under McCarthyism – he died in early 1980s New York, when AIDS was beginning to ravage its streets and among some of its pictorial models.
The social, the everyday and a stylistic vocation unavailable to trends made Neel one of the most important portraitists of 20th century American painting. The expressionist force of her portraits, with a psychological background as marked as her lines, abundant in black, is the brand image of an unclassifiable artist who only attended to the curiosity of her environment, understood as a creative ferment and at the same time joyful condemnation. The sentence that bound her for life to a cracking, protean and leathery world as only New York can be.
The expressionist force and the marked psychological background of his portraits are his brand image
It is true that, although an indefatigable artist – he painted for six decades, until his last breath – his name said little, until recently, outside the United States. This relative ignorance may be due to the fact that she reached a public dimension late in the last 20 years of her career, thanks in part to the feminist movement and gender studies. Until 1970 he exhibited few times; From that year to 1984, he carried out 60 samples. People Come First, the retrospective just opened by the Metropolitan in New YorkIt can be seen at the Guggenheim in Bilbao in September, but exhibitions of his work in Europe have been counted.
Neel’s scant knowledge outside of middle Artistic art may also be due to the circumspection with which she attended the parade of artistic avant-gardes of her time, from abstract expressionism to conceptual art and the emergence of the performance, without resenting one iota of them. Conscious non-ascription, her personality reluctant to gregariousness and fickleness of fashions endowed her with a very free brush, capable of reinventing herself in each painting, but also deprived her of the comfort of the label. Contemporary realism, the experts forced to characterize his painting decide, but that may mean many things and none.
He discovered art as one who experiences the sting of destiny and has never abandoned the brushes. “The moment I sat down in front of a canvas, I was happy. Because it was a world and I could do whatever I wanted in it, ”she wrote about that spell, being just in her twenties enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She had come out of the family shell – from a peculiar home: railroad businessmen and opera singers on her father’s side, and a mother descended from a signatory of the Constitution – to study at the girls’ school, which she would soon abandon at the hand of the Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez, with whom he would have two children and whom he would soon surpass artistically and personally. With Enríquez he learned about the exuberance of the avant-garde in Cuba, without them making a dent in his brushes.
Her reluctant gregarious personality set her free, but deprived her of the comfort of etiquette
The body mark of motherhood, from the prepartum to the postpartum phases, turns into a stark pictorial material in her hands; also the female nudes, including his self-portraits, the last of them at 80 years old. The abundant presence of pregnant women, or a transida Degenerate Madonna, her breasts exhausted, she is a reminder of the trauma of losing her first daughter. His entire creative universe is first-hand: his children, his friends, his family and neighbors; even celebrities who reached out to her, like Andy Warhol, had to submit to her outspoken perception of the human condition. His 1965 portrait of his son Hartley reflects his introspective mastery.
Warhol was portrayed in 1970 naked, exposed and vulnerable; the person within the determined and captivating character who ruled over the New York art scene of the time. The painting, which hangs in the Whitney in New York, does not compromise his fame and shows him sunk in the corset that the dandy was forced to wear after the attempted murder suffered two years earlier at the hands of his former collaborator Valerie Solanas. “Like Chekhov, I am a collector of souls…; If he hadn’t been an artist, he would have been a psychiatrist ”, Neel said of the psychological background of his portraits. That intuitive penetration of his gaze unequivocally equated the artist Warhol with the urchins that populated Latin Harlem. (Dominican children from Calle 108, from 1955), where Neel ended up fleeing the excessive bohemianism of the Village, or with two black girls from the neighborhood, a portrait from 1959, in which experts see traces of the documentary aesthetics of photographers such as Berenice Abbott or Dorothea Lange.
It is curious that New York, the frame on which he always leaned, is practically absent from his pictorial imagination. Only in New York synthesis (1933) painted a pair of skyscrapers, an elevated subway track, luminous sirens as patches of grief, and a parade of extras with skulls instead of faces (it was the Great Depression, when Neel was living on a grant from the art program of the new deal of Roosevelt, as she struggled to raise her children alone; his successive lovers, a cluster of absences). Only this time did she surrender to the inhuman, in a setting devoid of the souls that she breathed life into to inhabit it. Like Penelope in Manhattan, returning again and again on its streets.
People Come First. Alice Neel. Metropolitan Museum. New York. Until August 1, 2021.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.