A Portrait of Alice Neel

Alice Neel’s career was bookended by female associations. She began her artistic journey as a student at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and in 1979, five years before she died, Neel was honoured by the National Women’s Caucus for Art receiving an Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts. Although conscious of women’s rights and their role in society, relationships and the family, Neel cannot be branded a feminist artist; she painted people of all gender, age, creed and social standing, drawn to them by their circumstance (and their proximity to her) but Neel painted them all as people not as victims or role models.

In the exhibition currently on show at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin it’s the people in closest proximity to Alice Neel we encounter.  The works on show include portraits of Neel’s children, grandchildren, parents, and lovers, in a range of oil paintings and works on paper.  Alice Neel: Family is an interesting exhibition with works of differing scales and painterly approach, some are intensely painted, some loose and quick. In all, it is a good first look at a painter who is only now receiving international critical acclaim, more than 25 years after her death.

One of the first paintings to hit you is the portrait of Alice’s son Richard (Richard Age 5, Oil on Canvas, 1946) and it is a striking image. Intense in colour, intensely painted surface and intense staring eyes directed out towards the viewer. It’s the sort of picture that leaves a mark, its intensity fading slowly, its ghostly impression lingering long after you leave it. It’s probably the eyes you tell yourself; wide and staring they held your focus. But it’s not simply the eyes; after all young Richard is looking somewhere beyond your left ear, the look telling us he’s thinking of something or somewhere else. It’s the pose, the composition, the colour, the light on the face, the untold narrative and the suggestion of movement in the figure, how the figure reaches beyond the edges of the canvas; the whole kit and caboodle.

Neel had a wonderful ability to capture her subject in a way that gives them life beyond the painting. In many of the works in the Douglas Hyde show the painter’s immediate and sketchy brushstrokes run off the canvas or into empty space, limbs and chairs running out of paint enhancing the feeling that the subject is only there temporarily, Neel’s looseness has given them room to move, to escape. The figures themselves sometimes running off the edge of the canvas letting us know there is more to their lives; a world Neel does not permit us to see. Although in Hartley on the Rocking Horse from 1943 we see, if we let ourselves look, a figure in the background, a reflection in a mirror, the artist, the mother, keeping an eye not just on Hartley but also on us.

Even though Neel spent most of her career painting people she had the sensibilities of an abstract painter. She truly understood the canvas plane, and had once admitted to enjoying the process of ‘dividing it up’. This inherent understanding of the pictorial space along with the way she employed colour make these portraits very enjoyable paintings. The colours guide us through the work, lead us into the picture towards the figure and around the space they inhabit like a Renaissance narrative fresco. Although inhabit implies lived in, and most of these figures look like they are about to get up, move and abandon the space the artist has placed them in. As the years went by, Neel’s figures became increasingly distorted and expressionistic, the essence of the person, the moment and thought they were captured in, and the composition being of greater painterly importance. And in the paintings on show here we see that with the passing of time a freedom with colour has also appeared; her later paintings are fresher, surer, the light dark colour contrasts of the earlier works replaced by full colour complements.

Neel’s work was not fully appreciated during her life time; the fact she continued to work regardless simply shows us that she had self-belief and was prepared to continue her output in lieu of acclaim or major tribute. Of course she would have welcomed it; it would have validated her work and her decision to extract herself from the art scene of Grenwich village and move into Spanish Harlem, a move which in the view of many was tantamount to professional suicide at the time. But Neel insisted the move was necessary because she was looking for the authentic, she wanted to engage with the real people of the city, so for more than 20 year Neel painted the people she met on the street, keeping true to her Socialist leanings that previously saw her take part in the Federal Works Program in 1941 as well as to paint the poverty-stricken citizens of Havana during the 1920s.

When she returned from her uptown wilderness to the fashionable Upper West side in the 1960s she was out of step with the contemporary scene, however Neel made a concerted effort to reengage with the New York art world painting numerous portraits of artists, curators and gallery owners, including the poet and MOMA curator Frank O’Hara, and artists Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson.

In 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York held a retrospective of Neel’s work and in 1976 she was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the highest formal recognition of artistic merit in the USA. Even with these accolades, Alice Neel’s paintings have only recently begun to receive the full attention they deserve, assisted greatly by a more recent retrospective of her work Alice Neel: Painted Truths, organised by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2010, which also travelled to the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the Moderna Museet, Malmo. And prior to that in 2000 a major touring exhibition was held across the USA including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A new century bringing a fresh appreciation of her talents.

Alice Neel: Family is a satellite exhibition in the first ever Dublin Contemporary, a large scale multi venue exhibition that has brought a slice of international contemporary art, most of it installation in nature, to Ireland’s capital for six weeks during the autumn of 2011.  Given the amount of installation work on show it’s a bit of an oasis of calm in the overall programme. Perhaps the only failing is that there are not more works to see, but hopefully the success of this exhibition will encourage curators to bring a larger survey of Neel’s work to Ireland’s shores sometime in the near future. She will be warmly welcomed.


Alice Neel: Family is on show at The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin until 16th November.

www.dhg.ie                     www.aliceneel.com