By Orit Gat
Alice Neel’s recognizable portrait style, with the canvas left raw at places and the subject painted frontally, often seated on a chair in a nondescript interior, is here a wonderwork of intimacy. The painter, who died in 1984, spent most of her years living in Harlem, and this exhibition, aptly titled ‘Uptown,’ curated by writer Hilton Als, celebrates the diversity of neighbourhoods in Uptown New York – Neel moved from East Harlem to Morningside Heights in the 1960s – as well as of the people who populated Neel’s life. Though never a society portraitist (some of her most famous works are portraits of fellow artists such as poet Frank O’Hara), it’s surprising to see the people who surrounded Neel in her daily life: the black son of the superintendent in Neel’s building, a Chinese-American medical school associate of Neel’s son, a taxi driver she knew who identified as a Black Muslim nationalist and sat for her wearing a kufi and a trench coat. With an eye to art history, the exhibition underlines a part of Neel’s practice rarely explored and tells a story of how to be an artist in a big city, and how to be a neighbour, too.
Image: Alice Neel, Uptown, installation view