Nick Moss reviews Hot Off the Griddle, an exhibition of Alice Neel's art at the Barbican Art Gallery, till 21st May 2023. Image above: Support the Union, 1937. All images in this article are © The Estate of Alice Neel and courtesy of The Estate of Alice Neel.
The Barbican’s retrospective of Alice Neel’s 60-year career (the largest exhibition devoted to Neel to date in the UK) gives us Alice Neel at every stage of her development. Most importantly, while showing us Neel as she came to be seen – “the court painter of the underground”— the paintings gathered here restore her edginess, show her as an unflinching observer of her subjects, and set out her background in the Federal Arts Project of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
Neel was raised in the conservative backwater of Colwyn, Pennsylvania. When she first expressed her desire to be an artist, her mother responded with “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, Alice. You’re only a girl.” Undaunted, in 1921 she enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. In 1924 she met the Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez Gomez, and in 1925 they married and relocated to Havana. Neel was strongly influenced by Robert Henri, founder of the Ashcan school of social realism. Henri was committed to a relentless brutalism, and urged those who came after him to “paint what is real to you.”
In American Visions, the critic Robert Hughes says of Henri that he “wanted art to be akin to journalism. He wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horseshit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter, as real a human product as sweat, carrying the unsuppressed smell of human life." In this, Neel may be Henri’s truest disciple, but, as this show demonstrates, she has a kinder eye, a concern to show not just oppression and debasement but dignity and beauty also.
In the late 20s, Neel and Enriquez returned to the US where they suffered the loss of their first daughter. The couple separated and during this period Neel was repeatedly taken into psychiatric care. She moved to Greenwich Village and continued to paint. Her commitment to a vigorous, unabashed style is manifest here in her painting of herself with her lover John Rothschild, one pissing into the toilet, the other into the sink, and her madcap portrait of Joe Gould as a manic satyr with a dangling string of penises .
Joe Gould, 1933
The Gould portrait still caused outrage when she tried to exhibit it in a solo show in 1962. 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. She follows Henri’s dictum to “paint what is real to you” -and paints nothing more or less than that, even when seeking to catch the essence of the street preacher-surrealist Gould.
Her Public Works Art Project paintings are the first yields of her social realist style. She paints and participates in political activism, as a committed anti-fascist. Her paintings from this period – “Nazis Murder Jews “ and Uneda Biscuit Strike” – actually recall L.S. Lowry. The point of comparison being that both were artists who painted the industrial scene and (for Neel) the demonstration “from the ground up” (as T.J. Clarke and Anne Wagner put it in Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life ).
Neel explicitly rejected any exploration of abstraction as an option for her. The FBI had her down as “a romantic, Bohemian-type communist.” She saw herself as “an anarchic humanist” and it was this that motivated her commitment to the figurative: “Human beings have been steadily marked down in value, despised, rejected and degraded.” It was important therefore to represent human beings in painting and create especially a space for those who otherwise went unseen.
From this followed her portraits of Communist Party-linked intellectuals such as Harold Cruse and Mike Gold, a young Frank O’Hara, and the funeral of Mother Bloor, founding member of the Communist Labour Party. Neel does not glorify those she paints. She doesn’t resort to the hackneyed symbolic tropes of second rate portraiture. The Party paintings are simple, unadorned, almost naïve, as if Neel hopes that by showing Party intellectuals as ordinary, simple and straightforward, she will somehow deflect the McCarthyite smears and slanders of the day.
Propaganda of the deed
Painting for Neel is a propaganda of the deed, with the deed being simply the hopeful representation of an unvarnished truth. This can lead to a duality she perhaps does not always intend, but which emerges from that plainly rendered honesty and decency which is essential to her work. There is a portrait in the exhibition of Gus Hall, one-time General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States. Hall paid a heavy price for being a Communist militant in the McCarthy years, serving 10 years in jail, and was a committed member of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in his youth. He was also, though, a Moscow-man through and through, and it’s fair to say, a devoted Party functionary and not exactly a reflective man. Neel presumably paints him because he is a subject whose commitment to class struggle she thinks worthy of representation. But he appears here, chin jutting out, ushanka on his head, every inch the unapologetic bureaucrat. She can only paint what is real to her, even if, as here, she may think she is painting something else.
Andy Warhol, 1970
There is too much genuinely powerful work here to cover in a review. Perhaps the best of the paintings is Neel’s portrait of Andy Warhol. She paints him in 1970, two years after Valerie Solanas’s attempt to kill him. He is slumped, topless, revealing his wounds and the surgical corset he has to wear. In POPism, Warhol says “The fear of getting shot again made me think that I’d never again enjoy talking to somebody whose eyes looked weird. But when I thought about that, I got confused, because it included almost everybody I really enjoyed !” Neel captures some of that here, the vulnerability and the nervous defiance.
At 80, she painted herself nude. You can see superficial similarities to Lucian Freud in the work, a way of painting flesh that is somehow not static or artificial in its rendering, but alive, falling, rolling. But if there is something of the autopsy about Freud, Neel is gentler, taking real pleasure in her body in its ninth decade. She said that painting was a space in which she “could be completely and utterly myself. It was extremely important to me…I just told it as it was.” She did more than that though: by painting Harold Cruse and the women of Spanish Harlem in the same celebratory, non-judgemental way she painted society figures like Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate to the United States, she painted life as it could perhaps be, where everyone could be completely and utterly themselves.
Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet and playwright.
Latest from Nick Moss
- 'Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it.' Philip Guston, Claudette Johnson, Re/Sisters, Nicole Eisenman
- Class, history, and boxing: review of 'Crisis Actor' by Declan Ryan
- Review of 'The Dogs' and 'Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar'
- Reflections for Now: review of Carrie Mae Weems exhibition at the Barbican
- Clive Branson and Montagu Slater: Poetry reviews