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.