Alice Neel is hard to place. The New York-based painter, who died in 1984, lived uptown most of her life, but many of her most famous subjects hailed from downtown coteries. Neel must have been hip to get Andy Warhol to relax his guard for her well-known shirtless portrait of him (Andy Warhol, 1970): a study in vulnerability, the work is characteristic of her oeuvre. In light of art history’s obsession with avant-gardism, generally associated with the postwar downtown scene, Neel’s painting is a refreshing example of traditional portraiture’s more radical potential. Yet, the most intriguing portraits in ‘Alice Neel, Uptown’ at David Zwirner – an exhibition curated by Hilton Als of paintings the artist completed while living in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side – are those of subjects far removed from Warhol. I was familiar with Neel’s biographical affiliations with Spanish Harlem; I knew of her portraits of Latinx children; however, the range and quantity of portraits on view reveals her deep imbrication with uptown communities of colour, when so many white artists were focused downtown.
At times, Neel’s figures are cast in celadon greens, as if they had just stepped out of an expressionist Die Brücke painting; rather than reflect social anxieties, though, they reveal the artist’s deep affection for her subjects. The saturated colour of Two Puerto Rican Boys (1956) is redolent of Vincent van Gogh’s later works; they glance in our direction without seeming to return our gaze – an expression that recalls the haughtiness of a Grand Manner portrait and the look of surprise in snapshot photographs.
Likewise, her portrait of Harold Cruse (1950), the stolid scholar and author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), doesn’t look as you might expect; he is pictured here much younger than usually represented. (Als very aptly installed a case of ephemera in which he has placed Cruse’s controversial book, which called for black-run institutions and rejected the possibility of integration.) Cruse seems preoccupied with thoughts of his future: he had joined the Communist party three years prior but, in the year he sat for Neel, he also served as a covert FBI informant. Even without knowing this history, his worrisome expression conveys a man at the crossroads. The canvas is bifurcated into two colours: the slate grey of Cruse’s suit and the rich sienna brown of his skin bleed into the background, a bilateral manoeuvre that scholars have argued signifies Neel’s assimilation of the Barnett Newman zip. If the zip – Newman’s signature method of dividing his canvases – was the abstract painter’s attempt to resolve the role of humanity in the postwar world, while also exploring the formal dynamics of figure and ground, then Neel’s use of colour and spatial configurations achieves the same with portraiture.
Many of Neel’s male sitters seem to exude a gay or queer subjectivity, from the beautifully sprawling figure of Ballet Dancer (1950) to the set designer Ron Kajiwara (1971). Kajiwara’s conventionally masculine sports coat contrasts with his feminine long hair, crossed legs and brown leather knee-high boots. As in a number of Neel’s other portraits, Kajiwara’s upper torso is larger than his spindly legs, leaving the weight of his personality to rest mostly in the moody colouration of his face and his hands: posed open in conversation or, perhaps, invitation. His gesture operates outside of the rigid formulations of academic painting – especially portraiture – often used to represent the wealthy and powerful. With their distinctive painterly style, Neel’s portraits explore personalities, rather than physical types; they also memorialize figures historically excluded from the art world, which has long devalued depictions of people of colour, advancing a more capacious vision of community.
First published in Issue 187