‘Guess what, I’m alive!’: How New York artist Alice Neel seduced us with her fearless, fleshy portraits

The biggest exhibition of Alice Neel’s portraits in the UK to date opens this week at the Barbican. Eloise Hendy explores the life of an artist whose canvases captured everyone from Andy Warhol to the socially marginalised

Friday 17 February 2023 12:06 GMT
<p>Alice Neel at the age of 29 in 1929 </p>

Alice Neel at the age of 29 in 1929

When American painter Alice Neel was in her eighties, she would telephone friends just to exclaim, “Guess what, I’m alive!” The artist, known largely for her portraits, loved to paint people naked – stripped of “fussy” layers of clothing and “Mickey Mouse jewellery”. Born in Philadelphia in 1900, Neel was a radical humanist and a champion of social justice until her death in 1984. In her fifties, she was investigated by the FBI, having been identified as a “romantic, Bohemian-type communist”. When two agents came to her door, she could not resist asking whether they might sit for a painting. They declined – but many others obliged, baring their souls to Neel’s sinuous blue line. Her canvases, which saw her crowned the “court painter of the underground”, celebrate the socially marginalised – from queer artists to striking workers and her neighbours in Spanish Harlem. Neel was an eccentric and a nonconformist throughout her life – not only in terms of artistic style, but in the way she lived.

One of the reasons Neel painted, she said, was “to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle”. These words – which might well be “Guess what, I’m alive!” under another guise – form the evocative title of the UK’s largest exhibition of her work to date, which opens at the Barbican this week. Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle, organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou, Paris, will bring together paintings from throughout her sixty-year career and give this underacknowledged artist a whole new audience.

Painting was a lifeline for Neel – a form of personal therapy, and a way to reach out into the world and connect with the people around her. In early adulthood, she experienced unspeakable things. Before she was 30, she lost her eldest two children, both girls: one to diphtheria, and one to what would now be regarded as kidnapping, by her ex-partner Carlos Enríquez. In 1930, after her daughter had been taken from her, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised for a year. As she later put it, “I didn’t do anything but fall apart and go to pieces.”

Yet for most of her life, she was overlooked as an artist. She was forced to create makeshift studios at home, first in Greenwich Village, then in Spanish Harlem. Neel had two sons – Richard, who was born in 1939, while Neel was living with Puerto Rican musician José Santiago Negrón, and Hartley, who was born two years later, with communist intellectual Sam Brody. When the boys were young, portrait sitters had to pass their beds to get to where Neel painted, at the far end of their railroad apartment. She raised her sons on welfare, and it was not until her sixties that she began to have any degree of recognition or financial independence herself, which when it came was due in large part to feminism’s second wave. Neel was 74 by the time she was offered her first museum exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and even when her reputation as an artist grew in the final decade of her life, Neel was never fashionable or in step with avant-garde movements.

In recent years, though, this has all changed. Neel has gained a cult-like status, both her politics and her aesthetic sensibility drawing people to her work. “There’s something about Neel’s work that is very seductive for people,” says Eleanor Nairne, the curator of the Barbican’s new exhibition. Nairne notes that curators are usually “meant to have a degree of healthy, critical distance”, but she confesses that, when it comes to Neel, she has also been thoroughly seduced. “I am so dangerously in love with Alice Neel and her work.”

During Neel’s lifetime, “people weren’t always ready to recognise her true artistic talent”, says Nairne – partly because her late recognition meant that “she was seen as a kind of mischievous white-haired grandmotherly figure”. But now those gendered assumptions have loosened, and new artistic fashions have emerged. “At the moment we’re seeing a real resurgence of interest in figurative painting,” Nairne notes. She suggests that, for a lot of younger painters working figuratively today, Neel is “as much of a lodestar as Van Gogh or Cezanne”. This may be due in part to the intensity of her interest in the body: its fleshy softness; how it can warp and fold. “From an artist’s perspective,” Nairne suggests, “it’s like Velazquez delighting in painting lace.”

In one extraordinary painting, Neel depicts a woman breastfeeding her daughter. The sitter is Carmen, a Haitian cleaning woman who took care of Neel’s home and babysat for her daughter-in-law, and it is a portrait that throbs with familiarity and intimate, shared knowledge. As part of their research for the forthcoming exhibition, Nairne and the Barbican team discovered that some of Carmen’s family still have a close relationship with Neel’s. Before Carmen left for the US, they learned, she was a fashion designer in Haiti. Nairne suggests that this might help to explain why Neel – such a fan of nudity – paints Carmen in a “gorgeous fuchsia patterned dress”. As critic Hilton Als wrote of the painting, there is an undeniable sense that “Neel understood Carmen and Judy [Carmen’s baby]”. What Neel really depicts in the work, Als writes, is “the private space of women talking to each other about their bodies, and their female children’s bodies”.

Most painters, of course, attempt to make their canvases feel alive, yet in many of Neel’s works it feels as if she is attempting to push this further, reaching for a sense of double life-force within the image. Simply put, she loves to paint pregnant bellies. Again and again, depictions of mothers, babies and swelling stomachs fill her canvases – Neel’s own experiences of pregnancy, motherhood and child loss seem to pour into the colours she swirls around each belly button. Neel makes stomachs truly sublime: vessels of both terror and awe. “The whole thing feels pregnant,” Nairne exclaims of Neel’s pregnancy portraits. “The whole image feels like it’s about to burst.”

This feels true, too, of one of Neel’s best-known works, which depicts one of the 20th century’s most recognisable men: Andy Warhol. In soft, barely-there brushstrokes, Neel depicts the King of Pop Art as a defenceless, fleshy, wounded human being. His hands are folded in his lap, his eyes are closed, and his stomach sags over the surgical corset Warhol wore after being shot. He is riddled with scars. “The thing that’s so extraordinary about that Warhol image,” Nairne says, “is that to allow yourself to be painted with your eyes closed is such an act of trust.” She likens it to a “trust fall” – closing your eyes and falling back into someone’s outstretched arms. For someone as self-conscious and image-obsessed as Warhol, this willingness to be vulnerable – to put his trust and his injured body in Neel’s hands – is nothing less than miraculous.

Alice Neel, ‘Rita and Hubert’, 1954

Throughout Neel’s paintings, there is a prevailing sense that she is toying with the history of portraiture itself, once the preserve of monarchs and the landed gentry. She seems to imbue her canvases with nobility, particularly when painting friends and acquaintances from Harlem and Cuba. Yet simultaneously, using the same aesthetic techniques, she seems to utterly strip this away – exposing a sitter’s raw essentials. As the painter Joseph Solman wrote in the brochure for a 1950 exhibition of her work, “There are portraits that are almost vivisections.” “They’re kind of on a knife edge,” Nairne concurs, “between being something regal, and incredibly humble.” One of Neel’s skills, perhaps, was recognising that the “vitality” of “real living”, as she put it, flittered between the two.

Nairne was certainly attentive to this when considering the Barbican exhibition, and the relevance and impact of Neel’s work now, post-pandemic. Intimacy, Nairne suggests, “was robbed from so many of us” during the Covid crisis, and was undeniably important to Neel’s artistic vision and practice. “She was a woman who painted people in her living room amongst the reality of her family life,” she explains. “Almost always she paints from life, and she has people come and sit with her in her home.” Sometimes people would come to sit 17 times for a single painting.

Neel described herself as “a collector of souls”, and there is a strong sense that she is truly trying to capture her sitters – to bottle their essence. At the same time, though, her portraits are rich with a feeling of collaboration. “She and the sitter kind of conspired together on their portrait,” Nairne suggests. “There’s a degree of co-creation, I think, in what ends up being on the canvas, because it’s about how a person presents themselves to Neel.” Nairne suggests it is this dynamic that gives Neel’s work such an alluringly intimate quality. “The paintings feel really human,” she says, “charged with human connection. And we crave that, don’t we?”

A universal right to healthcare, education, and a standard of housing were things in which Neel believed passionately – but none could be taken for granted in the era into which she was born. Racial segregation was still in place, women couldn’t vote, and homosexuality was illegal. Nairne suggests that there are “two ways that we sometimes think about politics”, and that “people sometimes talk about Neel’s politics in a ‘capital P’ way”. Yet, “for me,” Nairne says, “I’ve always been interested in a softer but just as powerful vision of the politics of her painting, which is about what it means to see another person for who they are.” The two are of course connected: Neel’s progressive personal politics stemming from an ability and an urge to recognise people, and, as she put it herself, “what the world has done to them and their retaliation”. “It’s very easy for us, from the vantage point of our own moment, to underestimate the courage it took for her to be the person she was,” Nairne stresses.

Alice Neel, ‘Support the Union’, 1937

This fearlessness and refusal to give in to conservative social mores is perhaps most palpable in Neel’s portrait of Annie Sprinkle, a performance artist, sex worker, and “porno-feminist”. Painted when Neel was 82, it depicts Sprinkle in black stilettos and lingerie, her breasts and pierced vulva not only visible but boldly on display. “You just think, here’s a woman absolutely having a laugh,” Nairne says, “rummaging through Annie Sprinkle’s fetish gear to figure out what she wants her to pose in.” It is delightful precisely because of this sense of revelry and defiance. Having had her own experiences of breakdown and trauma, Nairne suggests that one thing Neel understood was that “we are all mad, but we’re all mad in different, colourful ways”.

Neel only completed one self-portrait, after much cajoling, at age 80 – just four years before her death. In it she is, of course, nude. In one hand, she clutches a white rag, and in the other a paintbrush. She gazes directly out, meeting the viewer’s eye. “All my life I’ve wanted to paint a self-portrait,” Neel declared. “But I waited until now, when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity.” Perhaps what the portrait really proves is that the line between insanity and genius is as thin as Neel’s woozy streaks of blue.

‘Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle’ is at the Barbican Art Gallery from 16 February – 21 May 2023.

The accompanying book, ‘Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle’, edited by Eleanor Nairne, with essays by Eleanor Nairne and Hilton Als and poetry by Daisy Lafarge, is published by Prestel, March 2023, £24.99 hardback

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