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.