A new chapter of the acclaimed exhibition Alice Neel, Uptown, curated by the Pulitzer Prize winning critic and author Hilton Als, is on display at Victoria Miro Venice. Curated by Als especially for the Venice gallery and including a number of previously unexhibited paintings and works on paper, this concise exhibition draws on the rich body of work created by Neel during the period in which she lived and worked in upper Manhattan, first in Spanish (East) Harlem, where she moved in 1938, and, later, the Upper West Side, where she lived from 1962 until her death in 1984. The exhibition shares themes with presentations of Alice Neel, Uptown at David Zwirner, New York (February – April 2017), and Victoria Miro, London (until 29 July 2017), while offering a new focus on Neel’s paintings and drawings of women and children.
Intimate, casual, direct and personal, Alice Neel’s portraits exist as an unparalleled chronicle of New York personalities – both famous and unknown – and the extraordinary diversity of twentieth century New York City. A woman with a strong social conscience and equally strong left-wing beliefs, Neel moved from the relative comfort of Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in 1938 in pursuit of what she termed “the truth” – of her experience and that of others. There she painted friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances and people she encountered on the street, and just as often cultural figures connected to Harlem or to the civil rights movement. As Als writes, “what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered”, and it was through this fascination, which drove Neel’s choice of subjects, that her work engaged with issues of racial and gender inequality, labour struggles, family dynamics and domestic upheaval.
The exhibition opens with a 1945 portrait of the musician Armando Perez and includes other figures from Harlem’s cultural circle, including Sarah Shiller who, with her husband, supported left wing artists such as Neel during the period. While candour and empathy are hallmarks of Neel’s art, her portraits of women and children, such as Mother and Child, 1938, and Baby and Blue Sofa, 1939-40, are especially expressive of intimacy and compassion, as seen through the prism of her own experience as a woman and a mother. Neel moved with her lover, Puerto Rican musician José Negron, to East 107th Street when she was thirty-eight years-old. She had, by that time, lost her first child, Santillana, in infancy to diphtheria, while her second daughter, Isabetta, had been taken to Cuba by her father when she was two years old. Negron left Neel shortly after she gave birth to her elder son, Richard, in 1939. In 1940, she met the photographer Sam Brody, with whom she had her younger son, Hartley, in 1941. A year later, Neel moved to a third-floor apartment at 21 East 108th Street, where she lived and worked for the next twenty years, creating some of her greatest work chronicling the world around her, with little by way of critical or financial support.
In an undated poem, Neel wrote:
I love you Harlem
Your life your pregnant
Women, your relief lines
Outside the bank, full
Of women who no dress
In Saks 5th Ave would
Fit, teeth missing, weary,
Out of shape, little black
Arms around their necks
Clinging to their skirts
All the wear and worry
Of struggle on their faces…
Commenting on Neel’s Harlem milieu, Als notes: “As a single mother of two trying to make ends meet, she recognized the struggle on her neighbors’ faces, because children clung to her skirts, wrapped their arms around her neck as well. She was needed and was needy.”
Equally, Neel was unflinching in her depiction of the female body, often in states of awkwardness and unease, as seen in the painting Childbirth, 1939, and assured of her own freedom as an artist, challenging a Western tradition that regarded a woman’s proper place in the arts as sitter or muse. As such, the truth she sought – and won – was both the truth of the individual and the collective truth of the era and the community in which she lived.
The exhibition at Victoria Miro Venice is a companion exhibition of Alice Neel, Uptown, which was shown at David Zwirner, New York (23 February – 22 April 2017) and at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, London (18 May – 29 July 2017).
An accompanying book, jointly published by David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro, includes essays by Hilton Als on individual portraits and their sitters, in addition to new scholarship by Jeremy Lewison.