Exhibition: ‘Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle’ at the Barbican Gallery, London

Alice Neel at the age of 29, 1929 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel

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.

Andy Warhol, 1970 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

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.

Self-Portrait, 1980 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel. 

Capturing a moment past and present: ‘Rebel Rebel’ at the Barbican

“Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season” (Portrait of Forough Farrokhzad), 2022
© Soheila Sokhanvari/Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery

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.

See my full review here.

Barbican’s Modern Couples explores art, intimacy and the avant-garde

‘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.

Nargess Banks

All images are for press publication only and are subject to copyright. See individual descriptions for detail. #moderncouples

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Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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Exhibitions – Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican

‘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?’

Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Gallery takes us on a journey into his world. It reveals a raw energy as fresh today as when Basquiat began creating art, first on the streets and subways of New York with his classmate Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO© (same old, same old shit), then on canvas in the late 1970s and early 80s.

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.

Nargess Banks

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January.

Watch Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Shooting Star’.


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Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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Minimalist, utopian, playful: The Japanese House

‘Life can’t be contained within a single slot. People’s sense of living expands beyond it, effectively erasing all borders,’ says Ryue Nishizawa. I’m thinking of this as I roam around the life-size model of the Pritzker-prize winning SANAA architect’s Moriyama House. Built in Tokyo twelve years ago, it is a kind of living organism, working on the concept of the house as a small city, of urbanity nestled inside a building.

The Japanese House, Barbican, Moriyama House Installation Miles Willis, Image ©Getty Images

Moriyama House, The Japanese House, Barbican, installation by Miles Willis, image © Getty Images

Moriyama offers a set of compact living quarters where cuboids of varying sizes are scattered seemingly randomly on a small stretch of land intersected with landscape and nature – a little like delicate water streams. The large windows give a sense of lightness and weightlessness to the complex. Here landscape, city and house become indistinguishable. The curators have imagined the environment around this house – the traffic, the peace, the sounds, the light. Each room offers an element of the unexpected, a strange plant, a music library of free jazz. There is a sense of timelessness here.

The Japanese House at Barbican Art Gallery. Teahouse y Terunobu Fujimori, Photo © Nargess Banks

Teahouse by Terunobu Fujimori. Installation at The Japanese House, Barbican

Alongside the giant teahouse in the second room, Moriyama makes up the centrepiece for The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 at the Barbican Art Gallery in London – a comprehensive and fascinating look at post-war Japanese domestic architecture. Nishizawa’s Moriyama is minimalist, whilst architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse is a bit of a fairytale construction with a hand-charred timber exterior and a white plaster interior. What it does is to reveal another side to Japanese architectural language, one that celebrates craft, the handmade; gives centre stage to materials, is at one with nature and loves an element of fantasy.

Toyo Ito, White U, 1976 – Photo © Tomio Ohashi

Toyo Ito’s White U, 1976 – image © Tomio Ohashi

In 1945 Japan had to deal with many of the issues we face today. Tokyo and the main cities were devastated by war. There was mass urbanisation and a shortage of housing. And environmental issues, caused mainly by earthquakes, had to be addressed. Added to this, designers were eager to forge a new language (or languages) that spoke of this new Japan. Some architects explored ways to fuse a traditional vernacular with modernism, whilst others used architecture and design to express their fast-evolving society.

The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation

Exploring minimalism, installation at The Japanese House

In the 1970s, enclosed housing became a bit of a thing and it spoke of a way of protecting habitants from the polluted and overpopulated city. A decade later the economic excesses of the ‘bubble era’ saw architects embrace the arrival of information technologies and produce houses that were exceptionally lightweight and open to the outside world. Today, new voices in design are creating habitats that will work in Tokyo, a metropolis, amongst the world’s largest – ideas that could also be applied to any other megacity in the world.

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 © Keizo Kioku

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 – image © Keizo Kioku

The two floors at the Barbican speak of an on-going dialogue that involves realistic solutions to housing, to more abstract ideas, utopian visions and grand manifestos. What’s exciting is the canvas they paint of a society that is complex and evolving, but also willing to explore living away from the traditional single-family house. Some of the ideas such as the giant treehouse speaks of imaginative and unexpected dialogues.

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

The Japanese house feels transient. The life expectancy of a domestic building is short so they tend to be lighter and less formal, and they can take on the persona of artwork or become manifestos for the creatives. Some proposals, such as Sou Fujimoto’s 2011 House NA, question our European concepts of comfort and privacy. These 74-metre living spaces in Tokyo are stacked like LEGO one on top of another and are completely exposed.

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 - Photo © Iwan Baan

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 – image © Iwan Baan

The Japanese House offers a narrative between history and modernity. Much like Japanese culture, the architecture is extreme too, from the NA’s complete nakedness to Concrete U by one of Japan’s best known architects Toyo Ito which was designed to shelter his widowed sister from the outside world. The exhibits here can be refined and rigid, then suddenly playful, kitsch even; some are like paintings, others like poetry.

Moriyama House still, 2017, image c Be?ka & Lemoine

Moriyama House still from film – image © Be?ka and Lemoine

The spirit of the show can perhaps be summed up by the brilliant documentary from Italian filmmakers Ila Be?ka and Louise Lemoine, commissioned for this exhibition. We watch Yasuo Moriyama, a 79-year-old ‘urban hermit’, a reclusive who has never left the city, at The Moriyama House where he lives. We spend time with him in his daily life, as he roams around the complex attending to his garden, chats to the beautiful actress neighbour, listens to the avant-garde jazz, ‘noise music’ as he calls it, and sleeps on the bare floor exposed to nature and the outside world. It is playful, funny and unexpectedly endearing. Domestic architecture is placed in context at the Barbican, with the life of the house is at its centre.

Nargess Banks

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 is at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London until 25 June 2017


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Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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