Freedom | David Zwirner
"Freedom" presents paintings and works on paper by one of the most thrilling and iconoclastic American figurative painters of the 20th century: Alice Neel. Born in Pennsylvania in 1900, Neel's life had an unconventional streak from the start. She enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where she was drawn to realism and figurative painting. Graduating in 1925, she wed the affluent Cuban painter, Carlos Enriquez, and moved to Havana for a period, where she was embraced by the avantgarde circles of writers, artists, and musicians, and produced paintings not only of her peers, but of the marginalised. The 1926 oil on canvas Beggars, Havana, Cuba, for instance, depicts a hunched elderly woman sat on the edge of a bench next to a younger man in a suit.

The death of her first child soon after the couple's return to New York sent Neel into an emotional spiral. She suffered a massive nervous breakdown and was hospitalised in an asylum after her husband left her, taking their second child with him to Cuba. Paintings around this period exhibit dark, expressionistic tones and a deep, psychological charge that indicate the internal states of both the artist and her sitters. Degenerate Madonna (1930) shows a woman sat cross-legged and dressed in black, her saggy breasts in full view, holding a child with a grey face and minimalist features in her lap; while Childbirth (1939) consists of a woman lying in bed, dark bags under her eyes and her plump belly folded over a white sheet. Both paintings reflect Neel's abiding interest in non-idealised representations—not only of the subjects that interested her, such as writer Joe Gould, but also of womanhood, which strikes a discernible contrast with the history of art and the male-driven notions of feminine beauty that define it. Organised by Ginny Neel of the Estate of Alice Neel, the exhibition also reveals the arc of Neel's work, which by the 1960s had started to gather popular traction. When she died at the age of 84 in New York, she was a celebrated artist and feminist icon.

Ocula, review by Sharmistha Ray

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