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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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The baby girl gazes milk-drunk at her mother who looks back at the viewer, aware of the complete reliance of the small being as she feeds her. In 1960, with a studio crammed full of pictures she couldn’t get exhibited, let alone sell, she rang O’Hara and requested a sitting. The engaged eye of Neel’s Parisian outing is certainly her own, but it is also a quality of all her subjects who animate a fascinating carousel of honest pictures, touchingly present in their puffed-up eyes and heads, which are invariably about a tenth bigger than they should be. 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 one portrait he is shown peeing in the sink as he examines a strange little wriggling critter in the palm of his hand.

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is the largest exhibition to date in the UK of the work of American artist Alice Neel (1900–1984). Soon their relationship ended in tragedy: a daughter died of diphtheria and Enríquez took another to live with his family in Havana. When Hunter did not come back to her studio for a second sitting, Neel declared the work complete: a testament to the possibilities of youth, of what was started with attention and purpose but could not be finished. But when I thought about that, I got confused, because it included almost everybody I really enjoyed !

Choosing an art world subject like O’Hara, rather than the local families, friends and activists she had tended to paint, brought with it a new degree of attention.

There’s nothing remote about these paintings, decades after they were made: her struggles and her subjects remain current. Anarchic humanist figuration was out of step with the art world, though, especially in the post-war years, when Abstract Expressionism dominated.Her painting of her ex-partner’s brother recovering from tuberculosis highlighted the New York epidemic caused by overcrowding. Among the many arresting, unforgettable moments in this marvellous survey are two portraits of artists in states of undress. For some, Neel’s depictions of the boy can be seen as a sense of foreboding, from the cheerful little character seen standing with his leg pressed up against the chair in a painting from 1953 to the more pensive personality that comes later . Unlike the commotion captured by the split-second shutter of Levitt’s camera, Neel’s paintings aren’t instantaneous. Towards the end of the exhibiiton is room full of books, dressed to look like a livng room, to highlight that Neel worked from home, and her family life was an integral part of her working life (her younger son deplored this bohemianism).

She was even commissioned to create a portrait of women’s rights activist Kate Millett for Time magazine. It was important therefore to represent human beings in painting and create especially a space for those who otherwise went unseen.Painting for Neel is a propaganda of the deed, with the deed being simply the hopeful representation of an unvarnished truth. Neel’s focus on figurative painting accounts for the relative obscurity in which her work fell; the exhibition Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle, organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou, Paris, offers an unmissable opportunity to re-assess her position within the art world. She painted her first self-portrait at the age of 80; she’s fully nude – her breasts and belly sag and she stares at the viewer with an expression that is both disgruntled and defiant. Neel also had an affair with a heroin-addicted sailor named Kenneth Doolittle, who eventually set 350 of her artworks on fire. A tender portrait of a skinny Andy Warhol in 1970, two years after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, has his mangled and saggy chest barely held together by stitches.

View image in fullscreen Support the Union, 1937 by Alice Neel, ‘a lifelong feminist, humanitarian, activist and braveheart’. Much of the French critical reception focuses on the political nature of the exhibition, especially the works’ engagement with American class politics and Neel’s brave depiction of race. It’s that mixture, that bubbling melting pot of every aspect of everyday life, that makes her art work.

Crowned the "court painter of the underground,” her canvases celebrate those who were too often marginalised in society: labour leaders, Black and Puerto Rican children, pregnant women, Greenwich Village eccentrics, civil rights activists and queer performers. 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.

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