Alice Neel review – sexy, wonky portraits of radicals, poets, feminists and naked art critics

Barbican, London
She immortalised New York’s bohemia and her own joys and struggles in paintings powerfully alert to body language and psychological vulnerabilities

Alice Neel was a painter of fearless and tender portraits. Although apparently direct and uncomplicated, her paintings of people alone, of couples and families and mothers and children, not only unpick the dynamics between her sitters but also their complicity with the artist. In her long career, she painted everyone from black radicals, academics and intellectuals to Latin American families and kids in Spanish Harlem. She left most of her painting of a black conscript unfinished when he went off to Vietnam, in the hope of his return (he did come back, but never sat for her again). She painted New York’s bohemia, art critics and lovers. She painted demonstrations and street life, police violence against strikers, a young man stricken with tuberculosis, celebrations and poverty.

TB. Harlem, 1940, by Alice Neel.
‘A young man stricken with tuberculosis’: TB. Harlem, 1940, by Alice Neel. Photograph: The Estate of Alice Neel

When a couple of agents from the FBI came knocking on the artist’s door in the 1950s, Neel asked if they would sit for her. They declined. Who, even an uptight Fed, wouldn’t want to be painted by Neel? Her painted encounters distilled her subject’s eagerness to please, their self-consciousness and their pleasure in being painted by this redoubtable, unshockable woman. Never quite an expressionist, nearly a caricaturist, sometimes deliciously wonky and frequently sexy, Neel’s portraits are alert to body language, to physical mannerisms and vulnerabilities.

You had to be game to be painted by Neel. She got art critic John Perreault to strip naked and stretch out. She painted poet Frank O’Hara, blue-eyed, restless, looking slightly away, mouth open, with his snaggly teeth. She gives us manspreading self-assuredness and loving couples, gay and straight, self-assuredness and palpable discomfort. Not everything works, but Neel’s verve keeps you convinced. Shoes dance this way and that, knuckly fingers clasp one another (I think of some of Van Gogh’s hands here), a thumb hitches itself through a belt loop, and O’Hara grabs at the seat as if he is grabbing at a life raft. Arms and legs semaphore their owner’s state of mind. Sometimes you feel like a shrink, in there with them, assessing these people’s situation.

Frank O’Hara, 1960, by Alice Neel.
Frank O’Hara, 1960, by Alice Neel. Photograph: The Estate of Alice Neel

Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle takes us through the entirety of not just her career, but also the vicissitudes of her own life. We see the suave, rich Cuban husband who left her, taking their daughter back to Havana; the jealous sailor who burned more than 50 of her paintings; the Puerto-Rican nightclub singer; Neel and leftwing film-maker Sam Brody. We never forget that we are looking not only at her subjects, but also at the woman who painted them. Born in 1900, Neel herself appears several times – twice in 1935 in a pair of watercolours – in one she is naked and peeing in the loo, while her lover stands pissing in the sink. Even the running tap looks phallic. Later, aged 80, naked, brush in one hand, paint rag in the other, she sits for herself in the same chair so many of her subjects have occupied. Here she is again, in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s short 1959 movie Pull My Daisy, narrated by Jack Kerouac (and adapted from his play Beat Generation), appearing alongside painters and poets, beats and bohemians, including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and French actor Delphine Seyrig.

John Perreault, 1972 © The Estate of Alice Neel.
John Perreault, 1972 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Photograph: The Estate of Alice Neel

The world turns. Seyrig went on to co-direct an adaptation of Valerie Solanas’s infamous Scum Manifesto: it was Solanas who shot Andy Warhol in 1968. And here is Andy himself, eyes closed, hands clenched and chest bared, scarred and in his medical corset, straight-backed, imperious. Neel went on to paint Jackie Curtis, one of Warhol’s trans stars, as a boy, wearing a baseball jacket. Here, Curtis looks like a little Renaissance prince.

Alice Neel. Self Portrait, 1980.
Alice Neel. Self Portrait, 1980. Photograph: Terje Östling/© The Estate of Alice Neel

Neel had a light but full-bodied touch. You don’t get a sense of multiple revisions let alone struggle in her art (although her late self-portrait apparently took her several years to get right). Her subjects are variously haughty, vulnerable, querulous, and sometimes crazy, like the notorious Joe Gould, gleeful with his multiple cocks, painted in 1935. Latina mothers with their kids; a boy alone, with a knife, whom Neel befriended (he went on, as an adult, to go to prison for murder); feminist critic Linda Nochlin with her small daughter; Gus Hall, chair of the US Communist party, sitting in his overcoat and hat, like a man who doesn’t have much time to spare, and bare-boobed Annie Sprinkle, with a ring dangling from her labia. Hall and Sprinkle’s portraits face each other at the end of the show, as if to underscore Neel’s enduring leftwing politics and her bawdy, ballsy temperament. What a pleasure this all is.


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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