the unique portraits of Alice Neel

Few star artists of the 20th century seem as much their own creation as the painter Alice Neel. While New York vibrated with abstract expressionism, then pop and minimalism, she painted her neighbors in Spanish Harlem. They included trade unionists, wealthy art types, sex workers, poets, pregnant women, her mistress and her children.

He had a caricaturist’s knack for detail: whether it was the veins in a worry-ridden Haitian mother’s hands or, in his best-known work, Andy Warhol’s scarred torso. Rarely working on commission, he described his projects as “images of people”, disliking the flattering connotations of portraiture. “Don’t expect to be flattered!” A babysitter reportedly said.

It was only in Neel’s old age in the 1970s that his twisted expressionism found acclaim in the art world. And in the decades since, his star has continued to rise. Great exhibitions and comparisons with canonical greats like Vincent van Gogh or Lucian Freud have become abundant and fast. As Eleanor Nairne, curator of the UK’s first institutional survey of the artist in 13 years, puts it, “it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t get a little weak in the knees for Alice Neel.”

Related: The people of Harlem, painted by Alice Neel, in pictures

With a chronological approach and new research, from the FBI files on Neel’s communist activities to the biographies of his lesser-known sitters, the show aims to highlight who he painted and why. Nairne points to Neel’s formative year in Havana in 1925 with her Cuban husband, the artist Carlos Enríquez Gómez. “It was the first time she had left the United States. She would have been among the people who were imagining other ways to structure societies and that would have been a big part of the conversations that she was having.”

Neel’s extraordinary personal story cannot be understated either; especially when Enríquez left her in 1930, taking her youngest son with him. The artist had a nervous breakdown and spent a year during which, as she herself said, “I did nothing but fall apart and tear myself to pieces.” Nairne sees it as a turning point. “When people have reached that level of human vulnerability, they can have an especially charged sense of society’s responsibility to protect us all. From that point on, we see her painting an incredible variety of people of different backgrounds and ages.”

In New York in the 1930s, Neel painted union marches and protests and joined the Communist Party. She also created gleefully whimsical nudes, such as one featuring her lover John Rothschild urinating in the bathroom sink as she sits on the loo. Crucially, in 1938 she moved to Spanish Harlem with Puerto Rican musician José Santiago, away from artsy Greenwich Village, which she dismissed as “honky tonk.”

The paintings he made there will be among the highlights of the show. They portray ordinary people and their struggles, from struggling mothers and their young to Santiago suffering from tuberculosis, with penetrating psychological insight. Working from the intimate confines of his apartment, Neel developed what Nairne sees as “a collaborative process. It’s not just that Alice Neel dismisses what she sees Alice Neel. She created a space where people could reveal themselves.”

The dynamic changed depending on who I was working with. Her social commentary takes an inevitably different turn in her great late work, when, as she emerged from obscurity, she invited the artists, curators, and critics she increasingly mixed with to pose for her. When critic and curator John Perreault wanted to include her work in a nude show, for example, she painted him nude. “He liked to put this curator of the male nude in the position of a subject,” says Nairne.

“She often quoted Gogol and saw herself as a collector of souls,” she adds. “She wanted to create an alternative canon of people that she believed deserved to be captured in paint.”

‘He is interested in bodies in flux’: the highlight of the exhibition

Pregnant Julie and Algis, 1967
The naked mother-to-be and the elegantly dressed father in this painting shed light on societal attitudes towards parenthood: the male owner and the scrutinized and exposed body of the woman.

self portrait 1980
“Neel isn’t into nudity for nudity’s sake,” says curator Eleanor Nairne. “He is interested in bodies in flux or in extreme states of volatility or change.” This is especially true of one of his last works, this self-portrait, a rare octogenarian nude, which he took years to complete.

Carmen and Judy, 1972
This tender painting depicts Neel’s family friend and housekeeper Carmen and her disabled daughter Judy. Carmen was a former fashion designer from Haiti, a past that is suggested in her vivid dress.

harold cruse, 1950
Alice Neel probably met Cruse through the Communist Party, when she was working as a hospital orderly. Although this 1950 painting was created 17 years before Cruse published his seminal book The Crisis of the Black Intellectual, he is depicted as an accomplished academic, chin on hand.

Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle is at Barbican Art Gallery, London, from February 16 to May 21.

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