Becoming Alice Neel. By Rosanna McLaughlin
From the first time I saw Alice Neel’s portraits, I wanted to see the world as she did. Neel was the Matisse of the brownstones: an exceptional colourist, immaculate stylist, and a collector of New York souls. Her particular mode of vision has attracted many, and later in life, she gained famous admirers. Frank O’Hara sat for her in 1960, and after Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas, it was Neel who painted him, his frail, naked torso stitched up like a rag doll mended one too many times.
Today, it would be easy to see her as a portraitist of New York’s canonised ‘culturati’, but she painted hundreds of the city’s residents, treating taxi drivers, kids, actors, and activists with the same candour and attention. For the exhibition ‘Alice Neel, Uptown’, the writer Hilton Als has brought together her portraits of people of colour residing in Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, two largely immigrant neighbourhoods in which she lived over the course of five decades.
The pairing of Neel and Als shows two artists who are both in sync and out of time. Neel was born into a white, middle-class family in Philadelphia, and moved to New York with her husband, the Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez Gómez, in 1927. Als, a staff writer at the New Yorker, grew up in a black family in Brooklyn, and hit adolescence in the decade that Neel died. Als shares with Neel a stylistic affinity – chicness served with a twist of Freudian introspection, and steeped in New York modernism – and a particular flair for studying character. For Als, that character is often himself, and in prose passages dotted through the publication that accompanies the exhibition (also titled ALICE NEEL, UPTOWN), he uses Neel’s portraits as triggers to reflect upon his own life story.
Image: Alice Neel, Harold Cruse, c.1950