Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle; Action, Gesture, Paint – review

Barbican Art Gallery; Whitechapel Gallery, London
The American artist puts her sitters at such ease that, one way or another, they reveal all in a superbly curated show of her life’s work. Elsewhere, an exhibition of 80 overlooked women painters is too much of a good thing

Alice Neel is in spectacles, striped chair and nothing else. She is 80, cheeks flushed from the effort of being true to herself – “It was so damned hard.” The paintbrush in her hand is directed straight at the naked breast. One eyebrow is raised, rhyming with an energetically upturned toe below. It is a vision of superlative defiance.

Neel’s self-portrait – by now as famous as she is – rightly opens this startling show. The floor has been painted gold, to match the frame, and her shining intelligence. Neel (1900-84) deserves her cult status in American art: a lifelong feminist, humanitarian, activist and braveheart; a woman who painted stubbornly figurative images all the way through abstract expressionism, minimalism and pop, who received scarcely any coverage or wall space.

Andy Warhol, 1970.
Andy Warhol, 1970. © the Estate of Alice Neel Photograph: © the Estate of Alice Neel

An artist with such force of personality she could cajole Andy Warhol into sitting half-naked before her, even though he regarded nudity as “a threat to my existence”. Here he sits in a surgical truss, blanket-stitch sutures still bright from the operation that saved him from Valerie Solanas’s attempt to kill him with her gun. His eyes are shut, as if whatever he is cannot be seen or known through appearance alone, skinny pins in brown trousers, feet dangling in old men’s brogues. We are not our bodies.

And it is the weird fact of our own mind-body coexistence that seems at the heart of Neel’s ungainly style. For no matter how familiar the sitters may be – painters, poets, trade unionists and intellectuals, Greenwich Villagers, Warhol’s superstars – the portraits remain outlandish. There is her trademark blue outline, looping, skimming and scudding round each figure, that doesn’t seem bent on correctness of proportion or old-school description. The heads are always slightly too large for the bodies, the brushwork is never flattering but emphatic; here and there you are looking at garrulous caricature.

An early and notorious painting of Joe Gould, dated 1933, shows the wildly eccentric writer surrounded by tiers of male genitals (he has several sets of his own) dangling around like Christmas baubles. Yet even with all this going on, Neel’s brush takes you back every time to the central fact of his gleeful face.

Face versus body, the mind in spite of the physique, or perhaps the life itself: that seems a steady fascination. The art critic lies back, voluntarily naked, in the thick pelt of his own body hair: an ape of an odalisque. The pregnant woman, also naked, tries to hold steady on a too-small chair as the new life inside threatens to topple her. The Marxist activist hooks one leg over the chair and raises an arm to expose the dark hair in her pit and yet it all goes awry; the seductive pose, the clothes and the anxious intelligence in her face are at odds.

Support the Union, 1937 by Alice Neel. © The Estate of Alice Neel
Support the Union, 1937 by Alice Neel, ‘a lifelong feminist, humanitarian, activist and braveheart’. © The Estate of Alice Neel Photograph: The Estate of Alice Neel

This show takes a wider and more political view of Neel than most. Here are her paintings of the Uneeda biscuit factory strikes in 1936, police bearing down on workers, innocent children picked out in blood red. Even the horses look oppressed. From the same year, a staggering scene shows protesters marching through Manhattan with “Nazis murder Jews” written on their banners. Neel was among them, her painting historic testimony. Never forget how people knew.

The presentation is also duly biographical. A 1926 portrait of Neel’s first (indeed only) husband, the Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez, who all but kidnapped their child, has overtones of El Greco. Later, her lover John Rothschild is always depicted naked except for his prissy little slippers. In one portrait he is shown peeing in the sink as he examines a strange little wriggling critter in the palm of his hand. He doesn’t seem in on the joke.

Abdul Rahman, 1964. © the Estate of Alice Neel
Abdul Rahman, 1964. © the Estate of Alice Neel Photograph: The Estate of Alice Neel

But others do. The main gallery is a kind of all-together-now vision of a certain time and place: downtown Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s. The art historian Linda Nochlin tries to keep her daughter composed. The art critic Gregory Battcock comes out in a pair of bright yellow underpants. The poet Frank O’Hara shows his nicotine-stained teeth in a rictus of nervous tension. Only the local taxi driver Abdul Rahman appears tickled with conspiratorial laughter to find himself now her sitter and not the other way round.

And this is surely what they went for: Neel’s company in this studio collaboration. For her personality is as important as theirs to every painting. Sometimes it is evident that they don’t quite know it, of course. Superstar poet and artist Gerard Malanga’s practised pout is a part of his slightly dim performance (and his vanity). One of two Wellesley girls in a double portrait leans directly towards the painter with ardent curiosity, as well she might. Neel, talking in a late documentary at the show’s end, was easily as fascinating and eccentric as any of her sitters. The gusset of the girl’s tights is beginning to show.

Wellesley Girls, 1967.
The two-way ‘ardent curiosity’ of Wellesley Girls, 1967. © the Estate of Alice Neel Photograph: PR IMAGE

This is a terrific selection, superbly curated by Eleanor Nairne and her team with utmost empathy (and the most eloquent captions you will find). It never betrays Neel by sidestepping the graceless, sorry or awkward in her art, just as she never ignored it in life. Her method, Neel said, was to converse with her sitters until they unconsciously assumed their most characteristic pose, thereby revealing “what the world had done to them and their retaliation”.

Neel painted right up to her death and was known to phone friends to exclaim: “Guess what, I’m alive!” 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. It opens with sensationally beautiful drifts of colour and light across a vast horizontal canvas by Helen Frankenthaler, titled April Mood. And it ends with another outright masterpiece by an American genius – Joan Mitchell’s Rufus’s Rock, a density of blue and black marks somewhere between mineral and earthly fire.

In between are many revelations: the exquisite monochrome calligraphies of the Japanese painter Toko Shinoda; Anna-Eva Bergman’s Norwegian fjords of black paint and foil; the Scottish painter Elsa Vaudrey’s lyrical Night Flight, full of flickering lights, strange clouds and vapour trails.

April Mood, 1974 by Helen Frankenthaler. Courtesy of ASOM Collection © Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022
Helen Frankenthaler’s ‘sensationally beautiful’ April Mood, 1974. © Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022 Photograph: © Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

Parched earth, cement, latex, objects protruding from scarlet enamel, paintings poured, dripped or scattered, loose structures that seem to have their own grammar or syntax: this is a prodigious vision of a kind of gestural, ungendered painting going on all over the world for a while. Yet the paintings are jammed together, practically frame to frame, like objects in a jumble sale. It is hard to hear the gentle whispers of one artist against the thrumming visual noise of another, and too often the canvases look either unfortunately similar, because grouped by theme or material, or appear to compete for greater or lesser strength or subtlety. Even the Mitchell is sidelined by the exit. A marvellous aspiration undermined, this is no way to present art.

Star ratings (out of five)
Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle
Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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