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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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But, for others, like the rest of Neel’s oeuvre, each portrait of Georgie shows the multidimensionality of being human—Neel provides an honest illustration of his innocence, hopes, struggles, and joy, all perfectly entwined. on the other hand, was made in half a day: O’Hara looks crippled by the anxiety of a hangover and the lilacs have withered.

In her last decades of life, she saw a new wave of recognition from critics, while celebrities sought her out for portraits, including Andy Warhol and poets like Frank O’Hara.An 80-year-old woman looks back at us wearing nothing but a pair of glasses and a “screw you if you don’t like it” expression. But Neel took off to Cuba to pursue her ambition, and began by painting passersby, inspired by the beautiful light and colours in the country. It was important therefore to represent human beings in painting and create especially a space for those who otherwise went unseen. Her family were straight-laced Pennsylvanians, with her mother once telling her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.

By the 1940s, Neel had two sons, the first with a Puerto Rican musician and the second with a communist intellectual. The picture doesn’t feature at the Barbican, but it’s fitting that the son of this daughter of the 20th Century became a Nixon-voting investment advisor. In 1974, her work was celebrated with a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York; she was 74 years old. 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. In her painting of protesters outraged by the rape conviction of Black grocery driver Willie McGee, the eerie high contrast colours and slanted buildings evoke serious tension.

The baby girl gazes milk-drunk at her mother who looks back at the viewer, aware of the complete reliance of the small being as she feeds her. Only the local taxi driver Abdul Rahman appears tickled with conspiratorial laughter to find himself now her sitter and not the other way round. 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.

As Neel’s profile grew, her choice of subjects expanded: alongside Vietnam conscripts and Village drag queens, the rich, powerful and famous began to appear.He wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horseshit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter, as real a human product as sweat, carrying the unsuppressed smell of human life. A communist 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.

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