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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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Her painting of her ex-partner’s brother recovering from tuberculosis highlighted the New York epidemic caused by overcrowding. She painted everyone: people of colour, the elderly, the poor, and gay and transgender people, and persevered through a time when figuration was renounced,” artist Amy Sherald said. It finishes with a video montage that showcases Neel’s exuberance as she paints her amused subjects, flashes cheeky grins, and plants kisses on friends. The Art Gallery is located on Level 3 and can be accessed by stairs and lifts from Level G or via the Sculpture Court if coming from outside.

She had been under investigation since 1951 for suspected links through friends and acquaintances, although had never formally joined the organisation. But if there is something of the autopsy about Freud, Neel is gentler, taking real pleasure in her body in its ninth decade. Here are her paintings of the Uneeda biscuit factory strikes in 1936, police bearing down on workers, innocent children picked out in blood red. Born in 1900 and active until her death in 1984, she does not always appear on the lists of the greatest painters of the century in the United States, but she certainly deserves it. The Marxist activist hooks one leg over the chair and raises an arm to expose the dark hair in her pit and yet it all goes awry; the seductive pose, the clothes and the anxious intelligence in her face are at odds.As this new exhibition opens this week at the Barbican Centre in London (on display until May 21, 2023), her figurative portraits of the dispossessed in Spanish Harlem and of some of her fellow activist friends appear more relevant than ever. Or take Neel’s own self-portrait, which she didn't come round to painting until she was 80 years old.

She focused her energy on making portraits of neighbours and friends which are remarkable for their depth of empathy, as she set out to ‘reveal the inequalities and pressures as shown in the psychology of the people I painted’. Accompanying the largest UK show of the artist’s work to date, at London’s Barbican (until May 21), the book includes over 70 of Neel’s most vibrant portraits, capturing the shifting social and political context of America in the 20th century. It feels like we see a boy who’s yearning to be a young man but who still cowers under his own childhood as well,” Eleanor Nairne, curator of the Barbican show, said. Anarchic humanist figuration was out of step with the art world, though, especially in the post-war years, when Abstract Expressionism dominated.

Her method, Neel said, was to converse with her sitters until they unconsciously assumed their most characteristic pose, thereby revealing “what the world had done to them and their retaliation”. Instead, her portraits bear witness to a network of interrelations shaped by the dynamics of a city where, like in Levitt’s film, people from every race and class rub up against each other.

Even as her canvases moved away from the streets of Harlem, Neel remained a committed Communist Party member throughout her adult life. Another work on display, by Jenny Holzer, is a wonderful fragment of biography: in 1955, when federal agents came to interrogate her over her Communist Party membership, Neel unsuccessfully tried to get them to sit for a painting. Now, nearly 40 years after her death, Neel has aged like a fine wine, becoming a mainstay in the catalogues of acclaimed portrait artists. The only reason it was sensitive is that something is embarrassing about being on welfare,” he said.

Her youngest daughter had died of diphtheria and Enríques had taken their second, Isabetta, to live with his family in Havana. Isabetta’s birth was the inspiration for Well Baby Clinic (1929), a bleak portrait of a maternity ward more reminiscent of an insane asylum. Drawing on international public and private collections, Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle brings together works spanning her 60-year career. It made more sense here, Neel was mixing with the flamboyant characters of the New York art scene, including a stripped down, vulnerable Andy Warhol.

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