The herstory of art

Two women who have left an indelible mark on the art world

Elaine de Kooning, The Bull, 1959, Acrylic and collage on Masonite. © Courtesy The Christian Levett Collection

Before you visit Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle, at the Barbican, I implore you to watch the artist’s hilarious appearance on the Johnny Carson show in 1984, to get a sense of her ebullient character, just a few months before she died, aged 84. Is it the only time a painter has appeared on a major talk show? It’s a refreshing exchange, unburdened by art-world jargon or the seriousness with which artists are usually treated (or treat themselves). “I don’t paint portraits as a service, you know. I do it to analyse people,” Neel declares as she flirts with a captivated Carson.

The Barbican’s curator, Eleanor Nairne, who also put together the memorable Lee Krasner show in 2019, has created a surprisingly domestic context for Neel’s work inside the Brutalist concrete galleries of the Barbican. And although Neel is now remembered as a zany, beloved grandmother of the art world, who’s dedicated a lifetime to “collecting souls”, whether famous or unknown, it wasn’t always so.

Born in 1900, she didn’t find much in the way of critical attention or institutional success until the late ’60s, eventually getting a retrospective at the Whitney in 1974. When Carson asked her why it took that long to get recognition, she commented: “there’s an awful lot of abstractionists… but for me, I felt that the best record of life and everything else was figurative – so I went against the grain. But you get punished for that.”

The immediacy and directness of Neel’s work is what makes these wonky portraits so alluring. First the eyes: forget the Mona Lisa’s bewitching stare, Neel’s eyes are piercing, welcoming and vulnerable all at once, evidenced by the differing expressions on the two Wellesley Girls (pictured). Neel’s empathy allowed her to paint – in her own words – “what the world has done to people, and their retaliation.”

“Wellesley Girls” (1967). Alice Neel, © Courtesy the estate of Alice Neel

Neel renders hands in a similarly expressive way, delighting in the knotty complexity of sitters’ awkward, spindly digits, which seem to have a life of their own, as in Carmen and Judy (pictured). Other hallmarks are the blue outlines and sparse backgrounds she gives her figures, each a notable departure from representational norms.

“Carmen and Judy”, 1972

The lack of detail and unfinished aspect to some of her work is deliberate, and sometimes tells its own story. Take the 1965 portrait of James Hunter, one of the standouts of the show. 1965 was when Lyndon B Johnson made the fateful decision to drastically increase ground forces in South Vietnam, and the year Neel met James Hunter by chance and asked him to sit. He had just been drafted and was due to leave in a week. As was her practice, Neel began sketching out the body on the canvas, before filling it in. When Hunter did not return for their second sitting, Neel finished the work in its incomplete state, signing it on the back.

Neel’s unusually bare backgrounds – seen in Andy Warhol (pictured), and Gerard Malanga – bring an intensity to her portraits. From the 1960s onwards, Neel painted all her work in her own New York living room, which doubled as a studio. Perhaps this is one reason she strips out all identifying details: there is no reference to location, time-period, or anything to help the viewer identify class or taste in these works. But it seems the lack of context is deliberate, since her propensity for painting nudes also removes even the distraction of clothes. As a result, all the energy of the works comes through the sitter, who carries the full weight of the image.

"Andy Warhol,” 1970

The exhibition cleverly uses the Barbican’s physical division of upstairs and downstairs to signal the sea change in Neel’s work after 1959. Starting upstairs, pre-1960, we learn why Neel was crowned the “court painter of the underground” as we whizz round her earliest work from Cuba in the ’20s, to Greenwich village in the ’30s, Harlem in the ’40s, finally ending in the Upper West Side. Few of her early subjects were typical for portraits at the time: pregnant women, labour leaders, Black and Puerto Rican children, Greenwich Village eccentrics, civil rights activists and queer performers.

Descending to the larger rooms downstairs, we’re greeted first by Neel’s 1959 portrait of Frank O’Hara, which kicks off the highlights of Neel’s celebrated portraits from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s an uplifting experience: from the portrait of art historian Linda Nochlin and her daughter to the less well-known figures, each painting feels like a personal introduction.

“Frank O’Hara” 1960

Two works stand out from this period. The first is Neel’s most famous: her 1970 portrait of Andy Warhol. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen by Neel in which the sitter’s eyes are closed, and he looks as if he’s about to receive a priest’s blessing or a kiss on the forehead. As someone who described nudity as “a threat to my existence” Warhol looks surprisingly vulnerable. Painted with his shirt off we see the scars left from the 1968 assassination attempt on him, and the corset he had to wear for the rest of his life.

The other work is Neel’s own self-portrait (pictured), finished when she was 80. A riposte to the objectified female nude, she appears defiant and slightly cheeky, delighting in her own nakedness. Maria Lassnig’s 2005 You or Me packs a similar punch, but that came 25 years later.

Self-portrait, 1980 by Alice Neel. © The Estate of Alice Neel

Elsewhere in London’s galleries and cinema screens, brilliant women dominate the cultural landscape. Laura Poitras’s documentary film about photographer Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed has just opened in UK cinemas. It focuses primarily on her battle against the Sackler family, owing to their role in the opioid crisis, but also shows her snapshot series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, alongside footage of underground artists and LGBT communities. Goldin seems to echo Neel’s interest in “what the world has done to people, and their retaliation.” Although she was a generation younger than Neel, both made work that collapsed the boundaries between art and life, richly imbued with each artist’s humanity and empathy. And both doggedly continued to make work, despite continued rejection by a short-sighted art world.

The Whitechapel’s ambitious, if slightly overwhelming Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70 is long overdue in its attempt to reconsider the history of abstraction in the context of women artists. Book-ended by two lyrical paintings by Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, this crammed, salon-esque hang presents us with a loosely-themed global overview, in which even the most erudite viewer will discover fresh new work. My personal highlight was Concours a 1961 work by Palestinian Maliheh Afnan that blended painterly abstraction with Persian script.

Even the most erudite viewer will discover fresh new work at the Whitechapel show

Aside from being slightly cramped, the show has drawn criticism for referencing male painters connected to the artists of some works, including the husbands of Elaine de Kooning (pictured), Anna-Eva Bergman and Lilian Holt. The accusation was that these women artists should have been contextualised purely on their own terms. While a valid criticism, in fairness it affected just five out of a total 86 works, and the Whitechapel explained that their reasoning had been to position lesser-known figures within a more familiar narrative.

“The Spanish Family”, 1943

The wider argument is that not mentioning male artists at all risks ghettoising women, when what is needed is a full, balanced, inclusive account. But is this really the case? Or should we just start over and create a totally new narrative? We don’t see Nan Goldin and Alice Neel bundled into an existing history of male art, because they don’t fit – they created a better one.

All works by Alice Neel, © Courtesy the estate of Alice Neel

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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Art, Arts & Culture, Horizon Line, March 2023

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