Alice Neel's Love of Harlem and the Neighbors She Painted There
Alice Neel's 1950 portrait of the playwright Alice Childress. Estate of Alice Neel, David Zwirner, New York/London; Collection of Art Berliner
"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.