How Alice Neel's paintings captured the diversity and beauty of harlem. By Felix Petty
Hilton Als was going to call the exhibition he's curated of Alice Neel's works -- displayed first at David Zwirner in New York, now just opened in Victoria Miro in London – Coloured People. Hilton is best known for a book he wrote called White Girls. There's a nice symmetry there between Coloured People / White Girls. The title they settled on in the end, Uptown, feels less loaded and polemical, definitely safer, but in a way, it works. The open, matter-of-fact place and time specifics of Uptown says a lot without really saying anything.
Coloured People, though, well what a title that would've been for an exhibition of Alice Neel's Uptown paintings. How much to ruminate on. Satirical? Angry? Offensive? It's definitely, at least, doing something, with that outdated phrasing, the way it seemingly carelessly lumps together all of Alice Neel's sitters into one homogenous group.
But for anyone even a little au fait with Hilton's work as a writer and his wonderful way with language, well, you can sense that celebratory reclamation in the face of the language of oppression as easily as you sense the bridling anger at the oppression itself. A little sleight of hand in the way it draws attention to such repressive language, whilst opening the broadness of the "coloured people" to become something expansive, rather than stifling.
Image: Alice Neel, Ed Sun, 1971.
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London
© The Estate of Alice Neel