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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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Sticking with these portraits for so long shows that Neel knew that one day society would value these sorts of paintings and understand the power that portraiture holds to spark conversations around social issues. She painted the poverty and squalor of Harlem where she lived in the 1930s and 40s, and which she described as ‘a battlefield of humanism’, her painting TB Harlem testament to the brutal treatment of the raging tuberculosis epidemic there.

Choosing an art world subject like O’Hara, rather than the local families, friends and activists she had tended to paint, brought with it a new degree of attention. These later portraits particularly are full of empathy and are at their most powerful when Neel has connected with the vulnerability of the sitter, maybe through her own experience of that vulnerability.

The show brings together more than 70 of the artist’s portraits alongside archival photographs, films and letters. Here he sits in a surgical truss, blanket-stitch sutures still bright from the operation that saved him from Valerie Solanas’s attempt to kill him with her gun. They say way less about the state of American life than her portraits, especially the depictions of her new Harlem neighbours.

One of her last painting was actually a nude of herself, of which she said, at 80: “All my life I wanted to do a nude self-portrait, but I put it off till now, when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity. This Parisian show will travel to London’s Barbican Art Gallery in February next year, in a slightly altered form and retitled Hot Off the Griddle. You see the good and bad, the highs and lows, the streets and the lecture theatres of New York all thrown together without barriers or boundaries.Another example of this mode, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), depicts a young man who has just been drafted after Lyndon B. One of her first solo exhibitions was organised by Mike Gold, founder of The New Masses , whilst she made a living lecturing at Communist-organised adult education schools; decades later, she became the first American artist to have a retrospective in the USSR. The exhibition charts Neel’s painting during the Great Depression, when she became one of the first artists to enrol on the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It is wounded Andy, huge scars across his torso, a corset above his waist, a man barely held together after the shooting that nearly killed him a few years earlier. You can see superficial similarities to Lucian Freud in the work, a way of painting flesh that is somehow not static or artificial in its rendering, but alive, falling, rolling.

Alice Neel (1900–1984) was born in a small town in Pennsylvania, studied art in Philadelphia, and lived most of her life in New York, with a stint in Havana following her 1925 marriage to the Cuban avantgarde artist Carlos Enríquez Gómez. In this, Neel may be Henri’s truest disciple, but, as this show demonstrates, she has a kinder eye, a concern to show not just oppression and debasement but dignity and beauty also. The main gallery is a kind of all-together-now vision of a certain time and place: downtown Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s.

It looks every inch like it was painted today, not nearly half a century ago, such is the extraordinary influence that Neel exerts on contemporary figuration right now, especially in New York. Neel and Levitt were acquaintances, if not actually friends: Levitt, a pioneering street photographer, had developed her practice with the Workers’ Film and Photo League, founded by Neel’s abusive, on-off partner Sam Brody; both artists had spent their Depression cobbling together a living from Holger Cahill’s Federal Art Project. And with one of the most extensive showings of her work kicking off in London, she is still very much ‘alive’. Regularly judged as out of fashion by art critics throughout different period of art history, portraits of regular people and street protests too often got overlooked by art exhibitions.

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