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  • Writer's pictureDominic Dalglish

To Feel Seen: Alice Neel at The Barbican

16.02.23 – 21.05.23

Barbican, London; £18/13

Curator: Eleanor Nairne

What is a retrospective? Sometimes the term gets used for shows that aren’t ‘total’, focusing rather on aspects, phases, or types of subject and medium that an artist worked through. But there are those that attempt a first and last, seeking to present – even if necessarily partial – something of a full package.

After opening with her extraordinary self-portrait finished at the age of 80, the Barbican’s Alice Neel (1900-1984) Hot Off The Griddle, takes us from some of her earliest works produced in Havana in the 20s, through to her portrait of Annie Sprinkle (1982), performance artist and sex activist made in her final years. A ‘true’ retrospective then. Though portraits are in the majority, the early rooms are dotted with cityscapes and, given her lifelong commitment to socialism, paintings she made of labour protests. Later rooms reflect her increasing focus on portraiture – a term she despised – to the exclusion of all else.

Left: Uneeda Biscuit Strike (1936); Right: Nazis Murder Jews (1936)

Retrospectives can do lots of things, including the effective beatification of their artist. Neel was fortunate enough to have that honour in her lifetime,[1] and since her death there has been a dedicated exhibition of her work either on, or in the works somewhere in the world. So there’s no doubting her critical acclaim, but on what basis are these claims made? Each iteration of the retrospective gives its curators and viewers the chance to build a case anew, contextualising and reframing the artist for the moment. It isn’t surprising that in our modern times this joint Barbican-Pompidou exhibition attempts to highlight Neel’s ‘understanding of the fundamentally political nature of how we look at others, and what it is to feel seen.’ Send me the address of your bubble if this is the first time you’re hearing about the caustic nature of current identity debates. It’s grim out there.

Left: Nadya and Nona (1933); Right: hanging left to right, Christopher Lazare (1932), Kenneth Doolittle (1932), The Intellectual (1929).

Write-ups of Neel’s work frequently stress her choice of a figurative mode – depicting people – at a time when many were turning to abstraction. ‘I’m not against abstraction,’ she said, ‘do you know what I’m against? Saying that Man himself has no importance.’ This is clear from early paintings that distort, if subtly, her human subjects. That’s to say, they’re still figural, but abstraction isn’t scorned, it’s rather used in the service of what she depicts. The business of painting people was clearly helped along by experiments on canvas. But the ups and downs of Neel’s own life must also have been a factor in shaping her approach to those who sat for her. She moved from small-town Pennsylvania to Philadelphia to Havana – after marriage to Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez Gomez – before settling in New York. She would separate from her husband, though never officially divorce, and have several relationships throughout her life. She lost children in birth and through separation; she would struggle with her mental health, and she was the victim of abuse. But she also experienced great love, from friends and lovers alike. She was not a brooding artist, but kept an open door policy - as the final room of the exhibition explains, she didn’t have a studio so much as a living room. The guide accompanying the exhibition is full of droll comments, as well as examples of the obvious delight she took in the things that made her subjects who they were. Her ability to empathise with, but also simply to enjoy people, stemmed from the fact that she wasn’t a visitor amongst those she painted, but part of the community.

Linda Nochlin and Alice (1973)

Neel is also held up as an important figure in the movement to reject the ‘male gaze’ – to push back against the eroticisation of women in art, by and for the male viewer. Important in this respect is Linda Nochlin, art historian and critic, who in 1971 wrote the watershed essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’[2] In other works, Nochlin would champion Neel’s female nudes of the 1930s as rejections of male sexualisation, and as statements of sexuality from a woman’s perspective.[3] Neel was to return the favour by painting Nochlin with her daughter, Alice, in 1973 [above]. Other works in the exhibition display women in states that – even in the late 60s and 70s – were simply not the subject of painting, chief amongst them her pregnant nudes.[4]

Academic work to situate Neel has been important for her appreciation. But as is often the case, this type of ‘looking’ has a tendency to frame artworks in quite particular, limiting ways. Retrospectives give us the chance to reopen avenues and take in the broad view. Like most painters – portraitists especially – Neel has her own distinctive style. Right from her earliest paintings, she worked with prominent lines and big swathes of colour. Where she decides to render shadow – which isn’t always – they are often sharp changes of colour rather than shades per se. She draws out and emphasises features of the face and body, the images sitting somewhere between real and unreal.

Top Left: Mercedes Arroyo (1952); Top Right: Art Shields (1951).

Bottom Left: Frank O’Hara (1960); Bottom Right: Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) (1972)

As much as you can spot these common threads, Neel incorporates quite different techniques to draw out her subjects. She wasn’t adverse to a bit of iconography – the remnants of a classical column behind Mercedes Arroyo (1952) framing the Puerto Rican educator and activist. Others feature big block colours, the rich yellow of Art Shields (1951) helping to add life and vigour to the man, whose otherwise grey hair and complexion might leave us with quite a different impression. Frames and angles are always important, her rendering of the critic Frank O’Hara (1960) almost too close, contorted and awkward, ready to speak, cut off by the frame. Compare him to Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) (1972), reclined as a nude might have been, but confrontationally clothed, in possession of her space, relaxed yet firm.

A host of other people-focused painters of the 20th century possessed a good deal of range, but with Neel the use of various techniques feels prompted by the character – as she perceived it – of her sitters. Just to take a few who have recently been shown in London, Lucian Freud’s portraits, as much as they may speak to aspects of their subject’s nature, really delight in the body (especially his later work). Paula Rego’s were often situational, highly charged moments that suggest more than the representation of her subject. For Picasso, or later Francis Bacon, distortion and abstraction speak to interior states. That interiority is also there in various Modernist portraits, from Modigliani to Paula Modersohn-Becker; often frontal, confrontational, but asking you to look within. Neel’s subjects are in the room – they are in the world, and as much as mental anguish may be a feature of her work, it is not removed and distant, but lived.

Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978)

For Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), the upright, straight-necked, taught-armed posture is foiled beautifully by Evans’ round belly at the centre. Beneath the mirror, the wall is totally different from that on the left, the angles and levels askew. The shadows are all over the place, too: out from her foot, and under her seat; climbing the wall, and arched across the floor; shrouding one side of her face and neck, but the stomach only lightly; one hides behind her chair in the mirror, carrying on to silhouette her reflection above. What initially looks like a strong, frontal image of a pregnant woman, becomes a complicated presentation of contrasts and illusions, the mirror being but the clearest suggestion of this. The image is a world apart from the languid, sensuous form of Pregnant Julie and Algis (1967), though colours and line are contrasted again. The clothed and angular man – those eyebrows… – up in his beige corner, overlapped by the undulating rhythm of the woman’s body, the red and grey fabric beneath speaking vitality.

Pregnant Julie and Algis (1967)

Both are comments on the strains of motherhood – the practical, difficult facts of pregnancy; the way that women are viewed and duly presented; a pushback and play with sexualisation, but these are made through the people they represent. However, it would be wrong to construe this as a celebration of individualism. In the 1930s when asked why she didn’t paint crowds of people given the social upheavals of the Great Depression, her characteristically witty response was, ‘One plus one plus one is a crowd’. Later in her life she would say, ‘I paint my time using people as evidence’. If there’s one thing this exhibition doesn’t quite do justice to, it’s the extent of Neel’s communist convictions. As Helen Charman noted for the Art Review, ‘When her communism is unavoidable, it is played for laughs.’ For Neel, representing individuals told the story of the world around, one that she vehemently advocated to change all her life.[5]

Alice Neel, Self Portrait (1980)

One has to wonder if this was a complication too far for the curators: how does Neel’s obvious political agenda stack up against her support of everyday people? Are they not exploited in her work? It’s perhaps telling in this respect that Neel started painting her only self-portrait at the age of 75, completing it when she was 80. Though in one sense this is a bold statement about the suitability of models – elderly naked women not often being the subject of paintings – it raises questions about Neel’s own form of ‘looking’. Why did she wait so long before submitting herself to her own gaze? Challenging preconceptions of appropriate subjects and dominant ways of seeing in art – as in life – does not free Neel from similar types of examination. This is not to diminish her accomplishments so much as to understand what she was seeking to represent in her work.[6]

The Family (John Gruen, Jane Wilson and Julia) (1970)

Her subject was everyday people, but she loved the chance to paint those on the cusp or in transitory states. Children, pregnant women, and Vietnam draftees were common subjects.[7] Her painting of Jackie Curtis as a Boy (1972) exemplifies this – the next day, Curtis could have looked totally different as was her want.[8] The Family (John Gruen, Jane Wilson and Julia) (1970), at once presents a united group as it shows you three people, and the group, in processes of change: a young girl, nothing but legs, at that painfully awkward stage of life; a woman in front, independent, beautiful and provocative, with hints of grey in her hair; a man controlling and protective for now, but this too must change.[9] For other subjects, her paintings brought the reality of their lives to a wider audience. The picture of Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian (1978) represents a same sex couple with a gloriously mundane fruit bowl in their midst. It’s the easiness of the domestic scene that makes it powerful.

Left: Jackie Curtis as a Boy (1972); Right: Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian (1978)

I loved this exhibition, but then I love Alice Neel’s work. I left, though, with a better sense of just how funny she was. As the exhibition draws to a close, the film, ‘Alice on Alice’ is full of laughter; it was at the core of her studio life. It’s clear, too, just how much of her work is not only psychoanalytical, but also therapeutic. She had an uncanny knack of capturing aspects of character, something that the exhibition does well to show, particularly with abundant notes on many of those who sat for her. This, perhaps above all else, makes Neel a painter for our moment. The desire to feel seen, to have someone understand, and be able to show us something of ourselves is a by-product of feelings of alienation. But to understand each other, is to build a better group. After all, one plus one plus one is a crowd.


Dominic Dalglish is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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[1] The first at the Whitney in 1974, followed by other in the late 70s and early 80s.

[2] Neel already had a strong association with the feminist movement as was demonstrated by her being asked to paint the cover for Time magazine in August 1970 focused on feminist protest. The subject was writer and activist Kate Millett who refused to sit for the portrait, thinking it inappropriate to feature any one person as a figure head for the movement. [Image in Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery]

[3] Neel’s work would also feature in the 1976 exhibition curated by Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Women Artists, 1550-1950.Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) 1972, is a portrait of another activist, critique and, in this case, painter who supported Neel’s work and helped to bring it to greater notoriety.

[4] Pamela Allara 1994, ‘"Mater" of Fact: Alice Neel's Pregnant Nudes’ in American Art is an interesting read.

[5] She joined the Communist party in 1935, had her home raided by the FBI in 1955, travelled to the Soviet Union in 1969 and 1981, the latter for a solo exhibition of her work.

[6] My great thanks to Vince, my editor, for drawing these points together.

[7] Neel didn’t just paint Margaret Evans pregnant, but in 1982, Margaret and the Evans Twins, caught her with her children.

[8] Jackie Curtis is well worth knowing about!

[9] Jane Wilson was a painter in New York, her husband John Gruen an art critic, and their daughter Julia Gruen would go on to work as Keith Haring’s assistant and studio manager, before becoming executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation.

Some bits on Alice Neel, the Barbican show and retrospectives:

  • A website dedicated to Neel with details of her life and work

  • Nice review by Matthew Holman of the show at the Pompidou, The Art Newspaper.

  • An excellent piece by Helen Charman in The Art Review on the Barbican show, and another good one by Francesa Peacock in Prospect.

  • On retrospectives, I enjoyed this piece by Dorothy Barenscott, 2018, looking at the move of the Jasper Johns exhibition between the RA, London, and The Broad, Los Angeles.

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