Two Puerto Rican Boys, 1956. Jeff and Mei Sze Greene Collection © The Estate of Alice Neel
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."