On view at the gallery's 525 and 533 West 19th Street spaces, the selection includes works that the artist made during her five decades of living and working in upper Manhattan, first in Spanish (East) Harlem, where she moved in 1938, and, later, the Upper West Side just south of Harlem, where she lived from 1962 until her death in 1984.
Known for her portraits of family, friends, writers, poets, artists, students, singers, salesmen, activists, neighbors, and more, Neel (1900-1984) created forthright, intimate, and, at times, humorous paintings that have both overtly and quietly engaged with political and social issues. In this exhibition, Als brings together a selection of Neel's portraits of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other people of color. Highlighting the innate diversity of Neel's approach to portraiture, the selection looks at those often left out of the art historical canon and how the artist captured them; as Als writes, "what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered."
Alice Neel, Uptown explores Neel's interest in the extraordinary diversity of twentieth century New York City and the people amongst whom she lived. The selected portraits include cultural and political figures admired by Neel, among them playwright, actor, and author Alice Childress; the sociologist Horace R. Cayton, Jr., whose 1945 Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City is among the key academic studies of the African American urban experience in the early twentieth century; the community activist and cultural advocate Mercedes Arroyo; and the academic Harold Cruse, known for co-founding (with LeRoi Jones) Harlem's Black Arts Theater and for his widely-published academic book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967). Other figures include neighbors and acquaintances, such as an anonymous nurse; a ballet dancer; a young art student; a taxi driver; a traveling businessman; a local boy (Georgie Arce) who ran errands for Neel and who sat for her on several occasions; and other children and their families.
Following the presentation at David Zwirner, the exhibition will travel to Victoria Miro, London, where it will be on view from May 18 – July 29, 2017. David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro are jointly publishing an accompanying catalogue, which will include essays by Hilton Als on individual portraits and their sitters, in addition to new scholarship by Jeremy Lewison.
From the start Alice Neel's artistry made life different for me, or not so much different as more enlightened. I grew up in Brooklyn, East New York, and Crown Heights during the 1970s when Neel, after years of obscurity, was finally getting her due. I recall first seeing her work in a book, and what shocked me more than her outrageous and accurate sense of color and form—did we really look like that? We did!—was the realization that her subject was my humanity. There was a quality I shared with her subjects, all of whom were seen through the lens of Neel's interest, and compassion. What did it matter that I grew up in a world that was different than that which Linda Nochlin, and Andy Warhol, and Jackie Curtis, inhabited? We were all as strong and fragile and present as life allowed. And Neel saw.
In the years since her death, viewers young and old have experienced the kind of thrill I feel, still, whenever I look at Neel's work, which, like all great art, reveals itself all at once while remaining mysterious. In recent years, I have been particularly intrigued by Neel's portraits of artists, writers, everyday people, thinkers, and upstarts of color. When she moved to East Harlem during the 1930s Depression, Neel was one of the few whites living uptown. She was attracted to a world of difference and painted that. Still, her work was not marred by ideological concerns; what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered in her studio, on canvas.
But by painting the Latinos, blacks, and Asians, Neel was breaking away from the canon of Western art. She was not, in short, limiting her view to people who looked like herself. Rather, she was opening portraiture up to include those persons who were not generally seen in its history. Alice Neel, Uptown, the first comprehensive look at Neel's portraits of people of color, is an attempt to honor not only what Neel saw, but the generosity behind her seeing. -Hilton Als