"Cézanne, that great, famous artist, said 'I like to paint people that have grown old naturally in the country,'” Alice Neel said on The Tonight Show in 1984. “I could say, 'I like to paint people that have been ruined by the rat race in New York City.”
From her Harlem studio, Neel had a firsthand view of New York’s poorest and most marginalized residents. But even as the neighborhood’s fortunes declined, Neel never lost her sympathetic eye for the beauty and strength of its inhabitants. The paintings on display in “Alice Neel, Uptown” at David Zwirner Gallery are graceful, dignified and full of life—anything but “ruined.”
Curated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als, “Uptown” focuses on Neel’s portraits of non-White Harlemites. “In recent years, I have been particularly intrigued by Neel's portraits of artists, writers, everyday people, thinkers, and upstarts of color,” Als said in a statement. “When she moved to East Harlem during the 1930s Depression, Neel was one of the few whites living uptown. She was attracted to a world of difference and painted that. Still, her work was not marred by ideological concerns; what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered in her studio, on canvas.”
Als’ point is an important one. Though Neel never hides from her subjects’ ethnicities, she doesn’t fetishize or caricature them either. She paints people, not symbols. Neel’s treatment of clothing is a big part of this. Along with David Hockney, she is art’s great chronicler of 1970s fashion. But where Hockney painted rich people from California and London, Neel painted Harlemites of lesser means. That’s not to say that her subjects are any less elegant than Hockney’s. If anything, they're even more glamorous, but in a unique, lived in way. They have the same kind of individual style that photographers like the Sartorialist try so hard to capture today.
Yet Neel never lets fashion become more than an interesting contextual detail. Her 1976 drawing of college student Yumiko Okamura is illustrative. While Okamura's face is richly detailed, her argyle sweater vest is rendered as just a few intersecting lines.
Okamura’s clothes are an important part of how she presents herself, but they’re not her. The Annie Hall-ish outfit, the contradiction between her relaxed left arm and clenched right arm, the way she sits in her wing chair—all of these details make us believe that Okamura was a real person who walked into Neel’s studio. But they never threaten to overwhelm her face.
Abdul Rahman (1964) is an even more striking example. Neel only barely fills in Rahman’s body, with only just enough paint for his jacket to be recognizable. Whole sections of canvas are unpainted, marked with only a few streaks meant to represent wrinkles. Neel captures what she needs from his clothes—their worn nature, how they drape against his body—and ignores the rest.
This is something that Neel refined throughout her career. In Alice Childress (1950), Neel paints Childress’ dress, necklace and background with the same level of detail as her face. The painting is still great, but Childress can't help but feel diminished. Compared to the psychological nuance of Neel’s later work, Alice Childress feels more like a landscape than a portrait.
The underrepresentation of non-White subjects is as pressing an issue now as it was in Neel’s day. While the paintings in “Alice Neel, Uptown” are a welcome corrective, don't see the show for that reason alone. See it because every work in it is great.
"Alice Neel, Uptown" finishes its New York run on April 22nd. All artworks © The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery.