Every so often, a local gallery gives us an exhibition that belongs in a museum. Alice Neel, Uptown at David Zwirner’s two spaces in Chelsea, is such a show. Neel, largely overlooked by art historians in her lifetime, has been called one of the most important portraitists of the 20th century, but I’d have to go further back than that to find an equivalent. Her deeply felt, passionately painted, psychologically insightful portraits of intellectuals, housewives and neighborhood kids recall Van Gogh’s painting of Dr. Gachet or the late portraiture of Rembrandt, when he painted the denizens of his largely Jewish neighborhood. Like those painters, Neel looked beyond the faces of her sitters, into the spark that animated them. And like them, she painted with skill and bravado, but above all, heart. “Like Chekhov,” Neel once wrote, “I am a collector of souls.”
Two dozen of the souls she portrayed are on display at David Zwirner (525 & 533 West 19th Street) through April 22nd. The exhibition is curated by Hilton Als, a noted theater critic, frequent writer on art and culture, and occasional curator. Als confessed a long-time admiration and affection for Neel’s work. “From the start,” Als writes, “Alice Neel’s artistry made life different for me, or not so much different as more enlightened. I grew up in Brooklyn, East New York, and Crown Heights during the 1970s when Neel, after years of obscurity, was finally getting her due. I recall first seeing her work in a book, and what shocked me more than her outrageous and accurate sense of color and form — did we really look like that? We did! — was the realization that her subject was my humanity.”
He continues, “What fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered in her studio, on canvas … Alice Neel, Uptown, the first comprehensive look at Neel’s portraits of people of color, is an attempt to honor not only what Neel saw, but the generosity behind her seeing.”
Neel was born in 1900, on the precipice of the modern world. She came from Merion Square, Pennsylvania, filled with ideas and a personality far too expansive for a small town. She graduated high school, found work, and started taking art classes. In 1924, she met Carlos Enríquez, a Cuban artist, and, in 1925, they married. Domestic bliss wasn’t in Neel’s cards. She had and lost children, went to and returned from Cuba, separated, was hospitalized, and attempted suicide. But, through it all, she never stopped painting.
Though she was loosely aligned with the Ashcan style of social realism, Neel eschewed isms. She preferred Harlem to Greenwich Village (which she thought was too hoity-toity), and focused on portraiture when Abstraction was the in thing. Neel painted for the WPA, was broke more often than not, and, as Als pointed out, finally received significant recognition only in the 1970s and ‘80s.
A profound sense of personhood comes through in her portraits. The exhibition spaces paintings widely and wisely. Rather than glance across a sea of faces, visitors must approach, stepping up to each subject, as if to be introduced. We don’t so much stand before paintings, but enter the presence of another.
In a portrait of Harold Cruse, an intellectual, educator and writer, his crooked jaw, outlined in black, is offset by thoughtful eyes, and the sheen of his skin is captured by two masterful brushstrokes, one across his brow, and the other running down his hand. They move the eye and enliven the painting.
Ron Kajiwara’s 1971 life-sized portrait seems to bring the young Japanese-American designer fully present. With his carefully-tended long, black hair, crisp jeans tucked into natty boots, and relaxed gaze, you’d recognize him in an instant, if you passed him on the street. Though Kajiwara died of AIDS in 1990, his presence is still palpable.
In “Two Puerto Rican Boys,” their personalities jump off the canvas. They’re tough even while they’re achingly tender. They were so anxious to be painted, they came and asked Neel if she’d do their portrait. And she did.
Thirty years before Beyoncé’s headline-grabbing pregnancy photos, there was Annie Leibovitz’s nude photo of pregnant Demi Moore in the late 1980s. But decades before that, Alice Neel painted nude, unabashed, “Pregnant Maria,” in 1964, paving the way for generations of artists by having the genius to see the profound truth and remarkable beauty in the faces all around her. Alice Neel died in 1984, just four years after painting her own first self-portrait, nude and vulnerable, brave and brilliant. It’s not included in the Zwirner exhibition, but it’s a treasure of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.