Alice Neel, activist, feminist, humanist, warm and passionately non-conformist, is one of the leading painters of our time. Working predominantly in New York, where she lived most of her life, and in the intimate surroundings of her home rather than a studio, from the start of her long career Neel was drawn to raw moments of intimacy, painting neighbours, artists, activists, labour leaders, Black intellectuals, queer couples — often painting those excluded from portraiture. “I’m a collector of souls,” she wrote. “I paint my time using the people as evidence.”
‘Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle’ at the Barbican gallery captures the spirit of this remarkable painter of the 20th century who, despite her figurative work being so unfashionable, refused to conform to the art movements of her time.
And she was a gifted portraitist; her gaze penetrates deep inside each of her subjects, all of whom are treated with respect, compassion, humour and equal attention, be it her fellow artist Andy Warhol caught at his most vulnerable (1970), the youthful poet and writer John Perreault (1972), head of the US Communist Party Gus Hall (1981), a couple of privileged Wellesley College girls (1967), her neighbour Carmen and child (1972), or indeed herself, painted in 1980 at a ripe age of 80.
As a side note, it’s interesting to compare Neel’s self-portrait with Lucian Freud’s ‘Painter Working, Reflections’ (1993), also his only full-figure naked self-portrait, painted as the artist turned 70. Whereas Neel reveals a touch of vulnerability in her pose, seated in an armchair, paintbrush in hand, cheeks flushed, Freud stands arrogant, full of ego, tough – yet both artist appear triumphant.
The Barbican’s gorgeous exhibition, with its warm colours and textures, offers an intimate encounter with the artist. Neel’s work is as fresh and relevant and powerful today as it was then. And, as the exhibition catalogue nicely points out, it speaks of our concerns and struggles, who is represented and why, highlighting the political nature of how we look at others, and what it is to feel seen.
‘Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle’ is at the Barbican gallery in London until May 21, 2023.
Artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s intricate miniatures of 27 feminist icons from pre-revolutionary (1979) Iran are painted in egg tempera onto calf vellum with a squirrel-hair brush, set against a hand-painted mural and to the soft sound of singers Googoosh & co. to form a hugely immersive site-specific installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery.
The Curve cocoons us in the world of these strong women of history: writers and poets, singers and actors.
‘I’m interested in space and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects and perceptible and imperceptible movements. Every artist working in this field tries to interpret that relationship in his or her own way. It is the composition and balance of those elements that give rise to the essence of drama and – why not? – the essence of life itself.’ These are the words of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists of the last century.
Known today mostly for his much-copied 1944 Coffee Table (an early edition of which sits here before me) and Akari paper lights, Noguchi tirelessly pushed the boundaries of art and sculpture. Working across almost seven decades and with a multitude of materials and mediums, his carved stones, stage sets, paper lanterns, portrait busts, mobiles, and playgrounds were collectively designed to be tools for understanding our place in the cosmos, and our relationships to history, nature, and one another.
The Barbican gallery in London is hosting ‘Noguchi’, the first of a touring European exhibition which sets out to document the work of this visionary creative. Thematically organised and curated to feature only the words of the artist himself, the exhibition successfully immerses the viewer in the mind and the world of Noguchi. The stripped back béton brut halls of the brutalist Barbican and the advantage of the two levels, allow the 150 works to breathe freely, and with the absence of excessive curation, the viewer is left in an almost meditative state to observe and absorb.
Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi’s mother was an Irish American writer and his father a Japanese poet who had abandoned the family on his birth. At the age of two, his mother took him to Japan to reunite with his father, sending him back to the US and onto Indiana for schooling for fear that the biracial child would receive racism in Japan. Noguchi eventually settled in New York where he trained in traditional sculpture, but his real break came while on an internship at the Paris studio of Constantin Brancusi. Here Noguchi gained a seminal introduction to the modernist principles of abstraction and presumably met the international avant-garde who were gathered in Paris in the 1920s. It was thanks to Brancusi that he became passionate about materials and craft – elements that remained fundamental to his work throughout his career.
By the end of the decade Noguchi was back in New York sculpting portrait busts, mainly to make a living, many of which are on display at the Barbican. They are a curious mix of expressionist and whimsical. He later referred to them jokingly as ‘headbusting’ since it was a useful way to make money and meet people. It seemed to have worked as they attracted the attention of the pioneering choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham for whom Noguchi went on to design sets using an interplay of his sculptures. He also befriended the architect and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller, who he referred to as the ‘messiah of ideas’. The two shared a vision for shaping a more equitable world through technology, innovation and design, collaborated on several projects including a futuristic car.
By the 1940s, Noguchi was working with manufacturers Knoll and Herman Miller. He continued to explore the possibilities of material and form with his interlocking marble slab sculptures and Lunars lights, created after his devastating experience of ‘voluntary’ internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona in 1942. The Lunars went on to influence some of his best-known works, the sculptural and ethereal Akari light sculptures – a contemporary take on traditional chochin paper lanterns using washi paper and electric bulbs. After the war, Noguchi travelled to Europe and Asia to understand the different uses of sculpture in a spatial and cosmic sense. He wrote at the time, ‘I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen, world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere.’
Noguchi went on to complete over twenty public works around the world – gardens, fountains, playgrounds, plazas – using space to challenge civic and social life and its intersections with nature and time. His final contribution was Moerenuma Park. Located on a reclaimed municipal dump outside of Sapporo in Japan, it included play sculptures, fields, and fountains, and a revised version of his first-ever play rejected concept, the monumental, stepped pyramid he called Play Mountain (1933). Moerenuma Park was realised two years after Noguchi’s death in 2000.
Ultimately his was a life dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. With a deeply humanist perspective, heightened by his prison experience, Noguchi understood the power of art and artists to make sense of the world. His work was political art. Wandering the exhibition, immersed from above and below in his delicate paper lanterns, colourful furniture, architectural playgrounds, and expressive and often funny abstract and figurative sculptures, you get the sense that in life and work, Noguchi remained an explorer with a philosophical and playful eye. In his own words: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’
‘Some women fight and others do not,’ observes Joan Didion in her The White Album. ‘Like so many guerrillas in the wars between sexes, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it,’ the American author writes of the great American painter. Much like the handful of female artists struggling within a very male modern art world, O’Keeffe refused to be considered a ‘woman painter’. She was brave and famously outspoken, writing of her flower series which she felt were sentimentalised by the male gaze, ‘I made you take time to look at what I saw, and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.’
Georgia O’Keeffe’s romance with the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, who she met in 1918 and later married, is amongst the forty art couples featured in a rich and engaging exhibition opened at the Barbican in London. Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the story of modern art in the first half of the 20th century told through relationships. The Barbican refuses to portray the woman as victim here – purposely avoiding the tired artist-as-muse narrative. Instead Modern Couples highlights how the union of two – or in some cases three as friends and lovers, straight, bi and gay – can create exciting artistic dialogues.
‘Its new take on modern art history, focusing on collaboration and mutual influence in intimate relationships, could not be timelier,’ says Jane Alison, the Barbican’s head of visual arts. ‘The show offers visitors a deeply personal and revealing insight into the transformative impact artists’ had on each other. Ultimately it is an exhibition about modern art and modern love.’
Organised by Centre Pompidou-Metz in collaboration with Barbican, it forms part of the gallery’s The Art of Change, a year-long series exploring the relationship between art, society and politics. Modern Couples offers an insight to the life and work of an incredibly rich collection of painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, designers, writers, musicians and performers, shown alongside personal photographs, love letters, gifts and rare archival material. This is not your usual crowd-pleasing, instagramable exhibition. There is so much to take in, and so much to learn in the brilliant béton brut Barbican.
Amongst the legendary duos here are Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, the brilliant Lee Miller and Man Ray, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Then there are some surprising unions, for instance Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, or Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt. Seen as a muse in the past, Flöge was a talented fashion designer who ran her own couture house in Vienna, and happened to be Klimt’s partner. Both shared a euphoric sense of a new world of art outside the confines of academic tradition and a love of textiles and ornamentation, which clearly fed into both their practices. The photographs they took of each other are fun and full of life.
Others such as Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy are a union as much about love as shared ideology that helped alter the creative landscape. One particular highlight is Leonora Carrington’s exceptional portrait of Max Ernst, taken in 1937, a coded double portrait (pictured here). At the intersection of design and art, we get to see the Omega workshop created by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant in 1913; there are Aino Aalto and Alvar Aalto and their Artek design company in Helsinki opened in 1935; and Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici’s modernist villa, E1027, in the south of France – featured here with original furniture pieces.
Modern Couples includes intimate relationships in all their forms – obsessional, conventional, mythic, platonic, fleeting, life-long – to reveal the way in which creative individuals came together. They often transgressed the constraints of their time, reshaping art, redefining gender stereotypes and forging news ways of living and loving. Crucially, the exhibition challenges the idea that the history of art is a single line of solitary, predominantly masculine geniuses.
This is a fascinating portrait of creative relationships, an engaging study of connections and conversations, of the brave and brilliant, daring and dynamic female and male artists, designers, writers of the early part of the last century. To quote the curators, it is a tale of ‘modern art and modern love, the seductive power of art …’. On until January and not to be missed.
All images are for press publication only and are subject to copyright. See individual descriptions for detail. #moderncouples
‘I get my facts from books, stuff on atomisers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs,’ wrote Jean-Michel Basquiat, the American artist who, in his short life (1960-1988), drew, painted, wrote, made lyrical, vibrant, radical, exciting, colourful, powerful works of art. ‘I don’t know how to describe my work,’ he said later. ‘It’s like asking Miles, how does your horn sound?’
He remained part of the underground art scene even when he gained recognition following New York/New Wave, the landmark 1981 exhibition by Diego Cortez of the Mudd Club, which portrayed the city’s vibrant downtown countercultural scene. Here the work of the young Basquiat was shown alongside the more established Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and William Burroughs. Together they captured the sprawling, dizzying energy of New and No Wave music and its impact on visual art.
The Barbican, its open industrial gallery spaces, large slabs of raw concrete softening the volume, the sounds of Duke Ellington echoing in its double-height, feels the exact right setting to be showing the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of one of the most significant painters of the 20th century.
Through image, text, sound Basquiat comes alive as he comments on the injustices in society making clear statements against racism, colonialism, class war, slavery. We discover his inspirations. Music is a powerful source – free jazz, early bebop, Bach even – and he rarely worked without something playing in his studio. Basquiat had a library of some 3000 records and his obsession was so much that he traded paintings for rare blues and bepop LPs. His hero Charlie Parker is referenced in the title of Basquiat’s 1983 record Beat Pop.
On exhibit are his notepads. He scribbled lines, poems, lyrics in neat capital letters as if he knew they would one day be on show. In one he writes: ‘I feel like a citizen. It’s time to go back and return as a drifter.’ Elsewhere, ‘Nicotine walks on eggshells medicated, the earth was formless void, darkness face of the deep, spirit moved across the water and there was light. It was good. Breathing into the lungs, 2000 years of asbestos.’
This is a show about life and time. We are immersed in Basquiat’s world but also raw New York of the early 80s. We learn of his fascination with art history and philosophy, his liking of the abstract expressionist Cy Twombly (an overriding influence), and fondness of Beat literature and poetry. Basquiat takes energy from the clash of high and low culture, from growing up in the chaos of 70s Bronx and later from downtown Manhattan’s countercultural scenes, street life, black-American life. He said: ‘I never went to art school. I just looked. That’s where I think I learned about art by looking at it.’ What’s evident here is that Basquiat gives us a new space for thinking. He foresees how we have come to navigate the labyrinth of information, of stuff, and our thoughts today.
Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January.