De Laszlo Scholar Lorna reviews the Barbican’s exhibition on Alice Neel ‘Hot off the Griddle’.
On Friday I visited Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle at the Barbican Centre, the largest exhibition of
Alice Neel’s work in the UK to date.
Born in 1900 in Pennsylvania, Alice Neel spent the majority of her life living and working in New York City. She was best known for her portraits, often depicting those most-marginalised in society; blue-collar workers and those from ethnic minorities. As is true for so many artists, she failed to achieve critical acclaim until later in life.
Neel painted figuratively when it was deeply unfashionable to do so and was quoted as saying “I’m not against abstraction. Do you know what I’m against? Saying that Man himself has no importance”.
I loved the exhibition. It was amazing to see the progression in her work, from her initial portraits, which were very muted and painterly, to the vibrancy of her later portraits; much larger in scale with boldly drawn outlines and each one bursting with character. The work displayed was explicitly political; reflecting her communist beliefs and featuring street scenes of race riots and trade union protests. The very fact she was making art as a woman in the early 20th century was political, one of the only female artists amongst a sea of men elected to the American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters.
She painted from her living room as she was unable to afford a studio and her compositions were very simple, often with her sitter seated or reclining with a plain coloured background. In each room of the exhibition, there were quotes from Neel on the wall which gave you a real sense of her
rebellious personality and necessity to produce art which felt so inspiring.
There was a beautiful film at the end where Neel was shown painting a portrait of a man with curly hair, narrating her thought-process of trying to capture one single curl that was falling over his forehead in a way that she particularly liked. She came across as someone who was fully engaged with the sitter, seeing the beauty in every detail that she observed; from the shape of their arm to the way their finger was held. There was real sense of how important it was for Neel to capture her sitters with empathy, honesty and curiosity which I found really endearing. She may not have been the most technical painter but each of her paintings managed to communicate a strong sense of presence and personality.
In the film she told the interviewer “to an Artist, producing art is essential to them feeling like they’re living, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them”. That line described better than I ever could why I have to do art, it’s about how I see and experience the world and those around me and also when I feel totally free to be myself. Portraiture is an intimate and sometimes uncomfortable process of observation between the Artist and the sitter. It’s showing a sitter “this is who you are to me” and unapologetically asking them to accept a different version of themselves than the one they might want to portray to the world.
Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is showing until Sunday 21st May 2023.