Alice Neel: Saving portraiture

The summer saw one of the first major exhibitions of influential American 20th century painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. At a time when Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art were all the rage amongst contemporary artists in New York, Neel painted portraits.

Alice Neel, portrait of Andy Warhol 1970 oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Timothy Collins

She painted New York’s celebrated artists and writers including Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, Meyer Shapiro and Linda Nochlin. She also painted her friends, and family and her neighbours in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem. Penetrating and exposing their personalities, she often referred to herself as the ‘collector of souls’, yet she never sentimentalised.

Neel’s turbulent personal life that included a year of hospitalisation following a nervous breakdown, and the destruction in 1934 of over 250 paintings and drawings, meant that only in her later years did she deserved recognition.

Alice Neel, self portrait 1980 oil on canvas, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

The Whitechapel curators assembled 60 major work spanning seven decades of her career. Criticisms? Perhaps that there was only one self portrait. The collection reveals – to paraphrase Mark Twain – that reports of the death of the portrait is somewhat exaggerated.

Where else can you see an old lady looking you straight in the eye, naked, sagging, 83? Her look carrying a similar directness and penetration as the work of Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Egon Schiele, but with an added twinkle of humour unique to Neel.

Alice Neel, portrait of Sam, oil on canvas, from the Estate of Alice Neel

This is the same sharp eye that sees the admix of fatigue and love in the portrait of her daughter-in-law Maria holding her grandchild. The same pierce look that can show the smug smirk of Algis, in shirt, trousers and socks possessively cuddling Julie, naked, heavily into pregnancy and anxious. Did she want this baby?

Alice Neel, portrait of Nnacy and the Twins (five months) 1971, oil on canvas from the Estate of Alice Neel

When did you ever see Warhol with his corset and scar, eyes closed, in all his vulnerability? And the New York theatre critique Shapiro with nicotine stained teeth, clearly happy with himself, and so he should be – he’s been immortalised, even reborn under the sharp brush of Neel. Or the picture of Gould, looking pleased with himself, stripped naked twice, both defrocked and sexually castrated with his drooping penis protruding from his navel and chair.

Alice Neel: Painted Truths shows us that portraiture is very much alive.

‘Alice Neel: Painted Truths’ exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery from 8 July until 17 September 2010. For more on Alice Neel.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

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