An accompanying catalogue, jointly published by David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro, includes essays by Hilton Als on individual portraits and their sitters, in addition to new scholarship by Jeremy Lewison.
Intimate, casual, direct and personal, Alice Neel’s portraits exist as an unparalleled chronicle of New York personalities – both famous and unknown. A woman with a strong social conscience and equally strong left-wing beliefs, Neel moved from the relative comfort of Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in 1938 in pursuit of “the truth”. There she painted friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances and people she encountered on the street among the immigrant community, and just as often cultural figures connected to Harlem or to the civil rights movement. Neel’s later portraits, made after moving to the Upper West Side, reflect a changing milieu, yet remain engaged more or less explicitly with political and social issues, and the particularities of living and working under, as Neel put it, “the pressure of city life”.
Highlighting both the innate diversity of Neel’s approach to portraiture and the extraordinary diversity of twentieth century New York City, in this exhibition Hilton Als brings together a selection of Neel’s portraits of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other people of colour. As Als writes, “what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered”.
The selected portraits include cultural and political figures admired by Neel, among them playwright, actor, and author Alice Childress, and 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.
“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 colour and form – did we really look like that? We did! – was the realisation 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 colour. 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 colour, is an attempt to honour not only what Neel saw, but the generosity behind her seeing.” – Hilton Als