Mid-century Harlem through the eyes of Alice Neel. By Grace Banks
In 1938 the Pennsylvania-born artist Alice Neel moved from fashionable Greenwich Village in downtown Manhattan to Spanish Harlem, where she lived for four years in a small apartment before relocating to nearby Upper West Side for two further decades. The downtown crowd did not consider Harlem an appealing area, but Neel didn't seem to mind at all. In the decades she spent living uptown, she befriended neighbours, shopkeepers, immigrants and children, many of whom would sit for her. These sittings resulted in some of Neel's most direct and beautiful portraits, shown collectively for the first time in 'Alice Neel, Uptown', curated by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als at David Zwirner in New York, and now at Victoria Miro in London (until 29 July).
‘I recall first seeing her work in a book, and what shocked me more than her outrageous and accurate sense of colour and form – did we really look like that? We did! – was the realisation that her subject was my humanity,’ says Als, who grew up in Manhattan, in an essay accompanying the exhibition. ‘There was a quality I shared with her subjects, all of whom were seen through the lens of Neel’s interest, and compassion.’ In most of the portraits, the protagonists stare directly out of the picture into the viewer’s own space. None of them seem overly posed, and seeing them is like stepping back in time, and into the lives of people who would have been regular fixtures of Harlem’s mid-century scene.
Image: Alice Neel, Building in Harlem, 1945.