The Will of the Devil

Apr 8, 2023 | Review


Illustrations from left:   Andy Warhol, 1970;         Self-Portrait, 1980;              Carmen and Judy, 1972

Hot off the Griddle, Alice Neel at The Barbican Centre,
London, 16 Feb – 21 May, 2023

I always hope to keep an open mind when I see an exhibition, but I am not always successful. Today, my quiver of barbs was fully ready to unleash a fusillade of poison arrows before I saw this extraordinary, unmissable, thrilling exhibition, the first to be dedicated to Alice Neel in the UK.

I almost didn’t go. I forced myself to see it.

Don’t make this mistake. Don’t be this stupid.

In mitigation of my attitude I must say that it was partly fostered by a little knowledge – a dangerous thing as we all know. The poster for the show, which I’d seen and disliked, depicts a beautiful androgynous boy, with empty eyes and long glossy hair, hand on hip in tight jeans and knees crossed in expensive footwear. It’s flat. It’s graphic-y. Illustrational. It’s safe. It’s woke. It’s gender fluid. No controversy. No sexual organs and yes, there are lots and lots of these in the show.

It turns out that Alice Neel’s paintings are far from safe. Her early Expressionist work from the 30’s in the early rooms of the show is raw and unmediated by aesthetic considerations. It’s reminiscent of Rivera and Kahlo and Otto Dix, and is highly political. It exposes the poor labour conditions of these terrible times in America and the world. The evils of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism cast a big shadow. Although a card-carrying communist from 1935, she benefited from Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933. His Public Work of Art Project which later became the Works Progress Administration, supported artists whatever their political affiliation, and the WPA supported her with $26.88 a week. She takes no prisoners. Her controversial portrait of the writer Joe Gould from 1933 — which some people might find pornographic with its multiple images of male genitalia — was considered so shocking in its time that it was not exhibited for 40 years and hidden away in a janitor’s cupboard when she tried to show it in 1962. The Barbican gives this picture centre stage.

So, the anodyne poster gives no indication of the real Alice Neel that is revealed in this show. She delighted in breaking down the social boundaries of her middle class childhood in conservative Pennsylvania , and she called herself an “anarchic humanist”. The beautiful boy in the poster might almost be a fashion advertisement for those lovely Frye boots that the model, Ron Kajiwara, is wearing. I understand why the Barbican has chosen this image, but it does Alice Neel a great disservice.

My other misguided expectations came from seeing her portrait of Andy Warhol from 1970, in the Whitney Museum. Poor, sad, wounded Andy is perched on a sofa in his ugly surgical corset and expensive polished handmade brogues. The king of Pop looks tiny and emaciated and vulnerable. His chest and stomach are crisscrossed with horrific scars from the attempt on his life from the shooting 2 years before. His eyes are shut in pain and his wig is aslant. The declarative quality of this painting works against it. It seems melodramatic, and I don’t trust melodrama.

So, these are the origins of my ignorant preconceptions about Alice Neel, who would be 123 today. She is not a dramatist at all. She saw herself not as a portraitist but as a “collector of souls” and her clear-eyed, kindly gaze settles benignly upon all her many sitters, with a kind of vigorous love and lack of moral judgement. She paints gay couples and straight couples. She paints them clothed and naked. She paints parents and children. She paints famous art critics and museum curators. She paints beatniks, and taxi drivers, and her neighbours in Spanish Harlem. She paints the heirs to great fortunes (and complains when they don’t buy the painting!) and she paints wonderful paintings of babies. She paints travel agents and the Mayor of New York. She is hungry for models. When, in 1955, the FBI sent agents to interrogate her (she had been on their radar for years) she asked them to model for her! Unsuccessfully, it must be said, but you do have to admire her chutzpah. This was the heyday of McCarthyism.

Before we get to the political paintings of her early career, the show opens with a regal self-portrait of herself aged 80, sitting naked in her beloved striped chair. This painting took 5 years. “it was so damned hard.” It says I am proud of who I am, and my sagging, ageing body. Rembrandt would have understood this. There is no self-pity in her work. In 1972, she paints her helper Carmen, one breast exposed, in a pause from feeding Judy, her naked disabled daughter. Neel’s focus is as rapt here as when she paints the porn star turned activist Annie Sprinkle, 10 years later. In the earlier painting Judy’s infant labia are red and swollen and exposed to us, the viewer. In the painting of Annie, she is clothed (or unclothed) in bondage gear, her breasts fully exposed, in garter belt and vertiginous heels, her labia discreetly locked with a padlock. It’s funny and honest and serious all at the same time. All humans are vulnerable. We are all naked under our clothes.

Neel suffered abandonment, poverty, neglect, unhappiness and bereavement in her long life and success only came to her late in her career. “I hate to be powerless, so I live by myself and do all these pictures and I get an illusion of power.” She had a terrible breakdown in 1930 after her baby daughter Santillana, from her Cuban husband, Carlos Enriquez, died of diphtheria, and Isabetta, her other daughter was removed from her to live with his family in Havana. She attempted suicide, but “the minute I sat in front of a canvas I was happy.”

She struggled for many years with being a single parent, and although well known in bohemian downtown New York, as a young artist she suffered from both entrenched art world sexism, and from being perennially out of fashion as a figurative artist in the heyday of abstraction. Her circle contained many of the Beat poets. Pull my Daisy, a film shown in the exhibition, is an adaptation of the third act of a play by Jack Kerouac called Beat Generation from 1959. It stars, among others, a young Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsburg, and Peter Orlovsky. Alice Neel has a bit part in this mad Dada film, but outside this magic circle she was not well known for almost all of her career. In another of many wonderful films of her in the show, she declares to a granddaughter that “life begins at 70!” So, there is hope for us all. The show is enriched by films of her working and talking and laughing and joking. Its range is huge, and it is curated with largesse and imagination. Alice would have loved it.

“You know what takes to be an artist ? Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil.”                      Alice Neel

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