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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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It feels like we see a boy who’s yearning to be a young man but who still cowers under his own childhood as well,” Eleanor Nairne, curator of the Barbican show, said. The Jack Kerouac film ‘Pull my Daisy’ from 1959 plays, and Neel takes part alongside Allen Ginsberg, among other artists and poets. Neel was dedicated to portraiture when through large periods of her life it was deeply unfashionable in the art world. Superstar poet and artist Gerard Malanga’s practised pout is a part of his slightly dim performance (and his vanity). Alice Neel (1900–1984) was born in a small town in Pennsylvania, studied art in Philadelphia, and lived most of her life in New York, with a stint in Havana following her 1925 marriage to the Cuban avantgarde artist Carlos Enríquez Gómez.

Something of that spirit runs through Action, Gesture, Paint, a show of 150 abstract expressionist paintings by 80 women painters, 1940-70, from across the globe. Regularly judged as out of fashion by art critics throughout different period of art history, portraits of regular people and street protests too often got overlooked by art exhibitions. This is a terrific selection, superbly curated by Eleanor Nairne and her team with utmost empathy (and the most eloquent captions you will find). Although its absurdity marks it out from much of her work, it is nevertheless typical of her style, insofar as it is, in its painting , still deliberately unshowy and perhaps even flat.These early-ish paintings are dark and weird, capturing the bohemian eccentricity of downtown New York. How, then, can this be the same artist whose legacy now includes solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London’s Tate Modern, and, as of today, The Barbican?

In American Visions, the critic Robert Hughes says of Henri that he “wanted art to be akin to journalism. There have been multiple major exhibitions on the artist’s work over the last few years, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2021 and last year at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Quotations and titles utilise an alternate set of narrow capital characters, creating a slight sense of unease and distorted proportions when blown up to larger sizes, especially within the exhibition space. This exhibition highlights Neel’s understanding of the politics of seeing and what it means to feel seen; organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou Paris, it opens at Barbican Art Gallery on 16 February 2023.Her experiences during this time consolidated her desire to bear witness to the hardship of life as experienced by most Americans. In 1974, her work was celebrated with a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York; she was 74 years old. In quintessentially Neel fashion, the pop artist looks fleshy and defenceless; his eyes are averted and his stomach sags over the surgical corset he wore after being shot.

Neel presumably paints him because he is a subject whose commitment to class struggle she thinks worthy of representation. One of the reasons I painted was to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle… the vitality is taken out of real living,’ she said. Her 1900 birthdate is a gift when it comes to figuring out where her paintings sit in her biography, something Neel herself was aware of. There is a portrait in the exhibition of Gus Hall, one-time General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States. A section of the exhibition focuses on Neel’s artistic friendships, with portraits of figures such as Frank O’Hara and Andy Warhol.Neel, talking in a late documentary at the show’s end, was easily as fascinating and eccentric as any of her sitters.

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