Alice Neel: Painted Truths, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

She was the great survivor of American art – and, just maybe, the portraitist who got the measure of Andy Warhol

Three things about Alice Neel's portrait of Andy Warhol strike you straight away: the unpleasantness of its subject's flesh (saggy, fish-like, opalescent); the fact that Warhol is wearing a surgical corset over massive abdominal scars; and, last but perhaps most arresting, that his eyes are closed.

The idea of the eyes as windows to the soul is a staple of portraiture, and of Neel's portraiture in particular. Where her subjects look, how they look, what their looking looks like. Neel is, above all else, a portraitist of the eye. And yet here is Warhol, himself a painter of portraits, with his eyes shut, eyeless.

What can it mean? Alice Neel was 70 when she painted Warhol this way, a survivor of all kinds of things. In her twenties, she had lost one infant daughter to diphtheria and another to the disapproving family of her Cuban first husband. There were breakdowns, suicide attempts, spells in asylums. Neel's style, too, was a problem. In her show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, you will see shadows of all sorts of painters – of Edward Hopper, Van Gogh, Cézanne, left-wing muralists such as Diego Rivera, of the German Neue Sachlichkeit school. All are figurative, though, a problem for Neel when Abstract Expressionism took over as the dominant American orthodoxy in the 1940s. Above all this, there was the unremitting pressure of being a woman in the notoriously macho world of New York art. Upstairs in the Whitechapel is a small, aching picture called Fire Escape, painted in 1946. Its subject is again a pair of eyes, in this case Neel's own, gazing out unseen though what look like prison bars, as trapped as an artist by her womanhood as, a couple of blocks away, was Louise Bourgeois.

And Warhol? In the late 1960s and already a pensioner, Neel suddenly hit the big time. In the Fifties, she had struggled to make ends meet. Now, an icon of the Women's Movement, she was taken up by the edgier end of the Manhattan social spectrum.

She painted media plutocrats and their wives, curators, critics such as Meyer Schapiro, poets, other artists. In 1970, she did Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, for the cover of Time magazine. Three years later, it was the turn of Linda Nochlin, whose 1971 essay, Why have there been no great women artists?, invented feminist art history more or less from the ground up. Unexpectedly, Neel shows Nochlin as a mother, with her six-year-old daughter, Daisy, sitting next to her on an Empire sofa. Again, it's the eyes that have it: Daisy's are excited, bright, Nochlin's shrewd, appraising and old for their years. Both, you feel, are reflections of Neel herself, of her incessantly youthful eye, the weariness of age.

And here, around the corner, is Andy Warhol with his eyes shut. I'm still puzzled about what kind of image Neel's picture is. Every portrait is a contract, a tacit agreement between artist and sitter. As we all know, it is annoyingly easy to take a photograph with the subject's eyes closed; Warhol was an inveterate snapper of other people. A painting, though, calls for complicity. Did Neel ask him to sit with his eyes shut, or was this merely one pose from many in their sitting? In either case, why did Neel, the supreme portraitist of the eye, choose to show her subject in this way?

Around another corner is an arresting canvas, called TB Harlem and painted 35 years before. It shows a man, poor and ill, lying in bed. Like Warhol, he has a wound in his side; in this case, the result of surgery to remove a tubercular rib. There, similarities between the two pictures end.

In 1940, when she made TB Harlem, Neel was still an overtly political painter, producing images of square-jawed communists and hollow-eyed workers. The subject of this picture is a left-wing martyr, his wounds inflicted by his poverty. Warhol's, by contrast, were the result of being shot by Valerie Solanas, a feminist writer and one of the Factory set. Solanas, in her testimony, gave as her reason for shooting the artist the control he had exerted over her, his inability to see his subjects as anything more than commodities. His work, his way of looking, was as far from Alice Neel's as it is possible to be. Which leaves us with a question, the answer to which I still don't know. The eyes of Neel's portraits are also her own eyes, signs at once of seeing and of being seen. Does she show Warhol as eyeless because he couldn't look at her, or at himself, or because she can hardly bring herself to look at him?

To 17 Sep (0207-522 7888)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent sees the Royal Academy's Sargent and the Sea, watered-down Impressionism with a pinch of American salt

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'