Alice Neel's Love of Harlem and the Neighbors She Painted There
"I love you Harlem," the American painter Alice Neel wrote in her diary around the end of World War II, and really, she loved everything in it. Neel celebrated Harlem–specifically its ethnically mixed section known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio–for "your poverty and your loves." And what Neel eulogized in her diary, she immortalized in oils: street scenes, interiors and, above all, portraits of the men, women and children in a neighborhood far from the suburban Philadelphia of her youth, which the artist adopted as her own.
Little heralded in her lifetime, Neel (1900-1984) has won posthumous acclaim as one of America's most inventive and peculiar portraitists. Her later paintings, especially, made her sitters strange through thick outlining and unelaborated backgrounds. But behind Neel's experiments with form were New York lives–of writers and revolutionaries, lovers and petty criminals.
Two dozen of her portraits are on view in "Alice Neel, Uptown," an affectionate, rooted, and at times achingly nostalgic exhibition at David Zwirner gallery that concentrates on her relationships with fellow Harlemites, most of them black, Latin American or Asian. The show was organized by the writer Hilton Als, who also has written a series of wistful essays for the catalog.
Hilton Als, Alice Neel, and the Faces of New York
The American essayist, curator, and artist Hilton Als is perhaps most concerned with New York and remembering her children. He's spent much of his career at The New Yorker, writing anthropological dispatches from the city's theaters, outer boroughs, artist studios, streets, and subways–using the first person as a way to get at the heart and humanity of the city, the people he adored, how they arrived, what they wore, what kind of art they made, their victories, the effects of AIDS, and the unceremonious ways they went. This is all captured in an exhibition currently on view at David Zwirner gallery in New York, curated by Als, titled "Alice Neel, Uptown," which will travel later this spring to Victoria Miro gallery in London.
"I believe that one reason I began writing essays–a form without a form, until you make it–was this: you didn't have to borrow from an emotionally and visually upsetting past, as one did in fiction, apparently, to write your story," Als writes in the introduction to his forthcoming book, which is titled after the exhibition. "In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical 'I' but about the collective–all the voices that made your 'I.' When I first saw Alice Neel's pictures, I think I recognized a similar ethos of inclusion in her work."
"Alice Neel, Uptown" spans the nearly five decades that Neel, a painter, spent living uptown after the Great Depression through the 1970s. There she painted mostly non-famous, black and brown people: children; mothers and friends she came to know in El Barrio; and interracial couples. Benjamin (1976), a portrait of a young black boy dressed in a blue pullover against a blue backdrop, evokes the dignity and promise of her pictures. He sits looking directly ahead, waiting patiently to be represented. It's a fully human depiction, and it doesn't use the black or brown body to advance what Als calls an "ideological cause." Benjamin as rendered by Neel is simply a black child, being. How powerful is that? Like Als on the page today, Neel's paintings then captured all that she loved about the city, which is to say she imaged figures she knew had to be seen to be remembered.
Shortly after the exhibition opened, we sat down with Als at David Zwirner to discuss his writing life, Alice Neel's pictures, and the city he holds dear.
Critics often talk about the humanity of Alice Neel's paintings–or maybe they talk about how often critics talk about it. The word snugly adheres itself to the late artist's work like skin, as though humanism could not be found, one way or another, in every portrait of a human. In reality, some of Neel's most recognizable pictures are well known because they express a kind of loving cruelty–the humiliating yet awed portrayal of Warhol and his corseted stomach, or her nude self-portrait that scandalized so many upon its debut. But this bluntness–the occasional lazy eye, unfeasible proportions, or slightly morbid hues–lends her art its mysterious compassion as well as a sentimentality that shirks excessive or unearned emotion. Neel sought to depict life in all its forms, but more remarkably, her loyalty was to what–or whom–she believed we ought to see.
Most of the people that Alice Neel painted look directly at you. Neighbors, friends, intelligentsias, strangers; their eyes return a gaze as though they're familiar with whomever stands before them. A new exhibit of Neel's portraits from the 1950s through the 1980s at David Zwirner, curated by New Yorker critic Hilton Als, rejoices in the kind of merciful tension this eye contact occasions. In Uptown, which is, a little regrettably, located in Chelsea, Als brings together over thirty portraits Neel painted of people within her social circle in Harlem (if one takes a detour to Als's Instagram, they will stumble upon a similar project: a compulsive record of tender snapshots presenting the people encountered in his life). The sitters in this show belong to multiple classes and ethnicities, though all are people of color. The audacious roominess of the galleries, where paintings are plopped carefully onto large white walls, allows each portrait–or person–to exist both alone and in relation to those nearby. The arrangement made my viewing experience rightfully slow, something to appreciate when considering Neel's ability to still: attitudes, a gesture, time.
At a time when the very idea of difference is under attack, it's more important than ever to find voices that speak up for diversity. One such voice was the writer Jane Jacobs, who became known as urbanism's poet laureate. Less known is the proposition that figurative artist Alice Neel was and remains America's great painter of diversity–a fact clearly on view currently in a sparkling new show at David Zwirner gallery on 19th Street.
A 46-year resident of East Harlem and the Upper West Side from 1938 until her death in 1984, Neel spent several lean decades painting people who could not afford oil-on-canvas portraiture. These were her neighbors, their children, her friends and, just as often, cultural figures connected to Harlem or to the civil rights movement. Her subjects were also predominantly immigrant, black and Hispanic–the face of what sociologist Michael Harrington pegged, in his 1962 book, The Other America.
Now that the "other America" demographically resembles this country's more ethnically diverse population, Neel's portraits appear even more premonitory, representative and powerful.
Enter Alice Neel, Uptown, a selection of paintings and works on paper plus related ephemera (it includes photographs as well as books and pamphlets authored by some of the artist’s subjects) organized by The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als. An exhibition and an upcoming book (it is co-published by David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro) that brings together Neel's portraits of people of color for the first time, Als' choices and commentary celebrate both Neel's paintings and what the author calls "the generosity behind her seeing."
"Museum-quality" exhibitions at larger galleries have become the norm, but the private sector can still make bolder and nimbler moves than most of our public institutions. A case in point: This miniretrospective of the great Alice Neel, curated by the writer Hilton Als, focuses almost entirely on the white painter's portraits of people of color. Painted between 1943 and 1978 in Neel's inimitable style–half social realist, half wonky Expressionist–the paintings and drawings of her uptown friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellow travelers form a remarkable montage of the artist's life in a vibrant, multicultural 20th-century New York. Everyone in her pictures, from unnamed local children with big eyes to prominent artists and intellectuals of the era, seem keenly, if awkwardly, alive. In a painting dated circa 1950, for example, the African-American writer Harold Cruse–forehead aglow, somber gray suit punctuated by a vivid blue scarf–thoughtfully touches his cheek with his long fingers.
In the early 1960s, Neel's paintings became brighter and more electrically hued, but she continued to delight in portraying the "other," including recent immigrants, stoned teenagers, pregnant women and queers. Neel's sitters, unlike those of, say, Diane Arbus, never seem freakish but rather appear companionable. Ron Kajiwara (1971) shows the graphic designer for Vogue, full-length and seated. His long black hair and coat, crossed legs with jeans tucked into knee-high boots and hand resting archly with knuckles on hip mark him as stylish and fey but never anything less than fully and equally present.
I grew up in Brooklyn. For a while, on weekends, my father would take me and my little brother into "the city." My father loved to walk, and he loved foreign films and foreign food. This meant that we saw different areas of Manhattan all the time. We ate sauerkraut in Germantown on the Upper East Side, and bought brisket and bialys on the Lower East Side. Looking back now, I can see that my father showed us as much of the world as he could without going out into the actual world, or beyond Brooklyn and Manhattan. I think anything outside the parameters of what he knew–he sought the unfamiliar in the familiar–felt dangerous to him and so, presumably, to his male children, whom he could not love; he had an aversion to maleness. Daddy was the only son of West Indian immigrants, and it occurs to me now that all those places we visited with him, down in Chinatown and beyond, were some version of his immigrant experience–a world of strivers gathered around their native food, trading stories about the new world. I suppose my brother and I were, to some extent, representative of the new world. In any case, visiting those various neighborhoods in Manhattan prepared us for many things, including the feeling that different people were not unfamiliar to us; when you're a child, the world is oneself. Still, there were signs that this feeling of oneness would not remain forever. My mother raised me, my brother, and one of my older sisters on welfare. This was during the time when social workers could come to your house to see if you had anything you shouldn't have, like a husband, or a television. Something in my heart, though, concentrated on this feeling of oneness I wanted to have with someone, and with the world. Determination was, for a time, my very soul.
In her beautiful, hard, and certain essay, "The Love of God and Affliction," the religious philosopher Simone Weil said: "The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction. It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, driven from their country, made destitute or reduced to slavery, imprisoned in camps or cells, since there are criminals to perform such actions." I am certain that Alice Neel, more than many an American artist, had a deep understanding of affliction. She did not use her work to escape it, but rather to plunge further into it–into the trauma of being despised, or forsaken. Indeed, if she had any credo as an artist, it was to show us ourselves, and herself, even when (or especially when) it was dangerous and hard to do so. Neel lived through two world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War; she saw dictators rise and fall, and empires clash with their colonies. She knew that the first mark of being political was looking: seeing what was done to others in this world, and how the afflicted became afflicted, or what nowadays we might call the disenfranchised. Neel experienced affliction herself, first hand. She lost two girls, her eldest children–one by kidnapping, essentially, and so saw the criminal at work in her personal life. What might have felled a person with lesser capabilities (and did harm Neel; in 1930, she suffered a nervous breakdown) went into the work.
Alice Neel is best known for her portraits which, with their controlled painterly drama and psychological nuance, are complete and polished formal statements in a classical genre. Her drawings and watercolors, or at least the 62 in this absorbing show, are closer to diary entries. Ruminative, confiding, sometimes startlingly unguarded in emotion, they add up to a self-portrait sketched in private over some 50 years.
The earliest watercolors from the 1920s establish a period mood; they present the New York City that greeted a young artist when she arrived there at age 27 with a Cuban-born husband who would soon leave her and their infant, a daughter, who would soon die. There was little money; life was raw. In watercolors we see nude figures sponging down in a cramped tenement; glimpses of Dostoyevskian neighbors (in 1938 Ms. Neel drew a set of illustrations for "The Brothers Karamazov"); and a bleak Hudson River winter landscape, ash-gray in what was still a coal-heated, bad-air town.
Alice Neel, who died in 1984, is remembered best as a portraitist—her paintings present friends, lovers, and other intimates with an astonishing, often forbidding guilelessness. Your average Neel portrait is penetrating, flip, scary, and more than a little funny, depending on how long you're willing to hold its subject's gaze. Neel's people all look to be plodding through the Stations of the Cross with a kind of decadent resignation—this is the world we live in, and oh well. "Alice loved a wretch," her daughter-in-law told the Guardian in 2004. "She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think."
When Neel wasn't painting, she was sketching. Alice Neel: Drawings and Watercolors, a new book with a corresponding exhibition, collects this interstitial work, some of it polished and some hauntingly restive. "There is an essential melancholy to Neel's work," Jeremy Lewison writes in the book's opening essay. "She presents a world of hardship, of tenement buildings and shared bathing facilities, of underprivileged and underclass immigrants, of humanity weighed down by the burdens of living in the harsh metropolitan environment, of human loss and tragedy."
All of which makes her a natural candidate to reckon with the Russian classics, those icons of gloom.
Well, someone must've thought so, once, and that someone was right. In the thirties, Neel made a series of illustrations for an edition of The Brothers Karamazov that apparently never came to fruition. It's not clear if the publishers rejected her work or if the whole project fell through, but in either case, damn. The eight illustrations demonstrate how attuned these two sensibilities are: it's the marriage of one kind of darkness to another. Compare them to, say, William Sharp's Brothers K illustrations and the difference, the change in register, is immediate—the black storm cloud of Neel's pen is well suited to Dostoyevsky's questions of God, reason, and doubt.
She brings out the madness and comedy, too. People forget how funny Dostoyevsky can be. Not Neel. She brings a manic bathos to these scenes that lends them both gravity and levity; in every wide, glassy pair of eyes, grave questions of moral certitude are undercut by the absurd. Some enterprising editorial assistant at Penguin Classics should see to it that a deluxe edition of Brothers K appears with these drawings posthaste.