American artist Alice Neel’s early adult life was marked by a series of traumas. In her twenties, she suffered the loss of two small daughters: the eldest who succumbed to illness before her first birthday, the second kidnapped by Carlos Enriquez, her Cuban-born husband who deserted Neel and spirited the little girl away to Havana, abandoning her to his parents. The losses resulted in a massive breakdown for Neel. She was institutionalized in Philadelphia, and attempted suicide on several occasions during her year’s stay in a hospital. After being released, Neel went north to New York to forge a new life for herself. By 1938, at the age of 38, she’d settled in East Harlem, known as El Barrio by its largely Spanish speaking population. It’s at this moment where the current exhibition of her portraits at David Zwirner, Alice Neel, Uptown, begins.
I am always attracted to people who are not myself but are. –Hilton Als, White Girls
No matter what, she was a woman—she would just do it. –Hilton Als on Alice Neel
The intimate exhibition is curated by Hilton Als, longtime theater critic for The New Yorker and author of two indefinable books of semi-nonfiction, The Women and White Girls, which consider race, gender, and sexuality in maverick and fluid ways, and always through the author’s personal lens. In recent years, Als has turned his attention to curating exhibitions of artists whose work shares similar themes to his writing. Uptown is divided into two sections, the first devoted to the 24 years Neel lived in El Barrio, and the second highlighting paintings she made in her apartment on the Upper West Side, where she moved in 1962 and remained until her death in 1984. Supplementing the canvases, Als has selected poetry and letters written by Neel, in addition to books, photographs, and other archival materials that place the work in context, both within the politics of the time as well as in Neel’s personal life. In a text for the forthcoming exhibition catalogue, excerpted in The New Yorker he argues that Neel made a point of “showing us the humanness embedded in subjects that people might classify as ‘different,’” and that she did so by frequently painting the non-white residents of her neighborhood. He posits this as the reason why Neel was not more celebrated for her work in her lifetime, and had she limited her portraits to white characters, the art world would have been more receptive to her work. The tastemakers would have “seen themselves, which, in the art world at least, is always rewarded.” While there is merit to the argument, no concrete evidence is presented to support the theory, and so it is difficult to believe this was the sole reason Neel was ignored. She also painted plenty of white subjects (her most famous painting is likely her 1979 portrait of Andy Warhol, who sat for her shirtless as he recovered from a gunshot wound to the chest). In his text, Als also overlooks the more problematic flip side of his argument: the potential for exploitation of non-white or other marginalized subjects by white artists, which has a long and unfortunate art historical precedent.
And luckily, Neel’s paintings can respond to this unexamined side of the debate with authority, so rich are they in humanity. Nearly all of the works Als chose for this exhibition are portraits of non-white subjects, a testament to the multiethnic communities where Neel lived. It is heartening to walk through the galleries and see this diversity (now eroding thanks to astronomical real estate prices and gentrification)—the panoply of black, Puerto Rican, and Asian faces and bodies, many of them women and children—reflected back.
In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but the collective—all the voices that made your ‘I.’ When I first saw Alice Neel’s pictures, I think I recognized a similar ethos of inclusion in her work. The pictures were a collaboration, a pouring in of energy from both sides—the sitter’s and the artist’s.
Her paintings also ask us to reconsider the barometers by which we, as a culture, tend to measure success. The party line that Neel was not appreciated in her lifetime—a notion to which even Als ascribes—doesn’t take into account that amongst her community, she was celebrated. One need only to look to the story behind her poignant work, Two Puerto Rican Boys (1956). According to Neel, the two little, local boys rang her doorbell one day. They told her they’d heard she was painting “Spanish children,” and asked whether she’d paint them. Neel agreed. The boys sit together on a single chair; their faces grave in the way only children’s can be when they are attempting to appear grown-up. Neel paints them as they are, maintaining their seriousness without poking adult fun at it, and thus she allows them their dignity. Neel may not have been “known” by the authoritative and patriarchal white art world during most of her lifetime, but she was known. That her renown was mainly amongst the black, brown, female, and young people of the neighborhood shouldn’t undermine the fact that her work bears testament to her rich and full life, to her deep understanding of humanity. Neel’s success is her own.
Alice Neel, Uptown is on view February 23–April 22 at David Zwirner, 525 & 533 West 19th Street, NY