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Alice Neel Exhibition: A Review

Alice Neel’s latest exhibition ‘Hot Off The Griddle’ showing at the Barbican, London features a chronological display of her paintings, drawings and films created in response to humanity in the 20th century. Neel reflects on the role of the painter in telling the story of a person through portraiture.

Held in the Barbican Art Gallery, ‘Hot Off The Griddle’ spans across two floors, stretching along the outer walls of the Barbican Tower. Exploring this exhibition is a journey, not only chronologically but physically. The shadowed exhibition rooms take you on a journey from Neel’s early paintings and drawing she created when she was studying, through to the portraits of her final years. The chronological layout of Neels work is instantly disrupted, as the first painting shown in the exhibition, is Neel’s ‘Self Portrait’. The nude self-portrait portrays Neel’s undeniable honesty in her painting. Her stern yet powerful glare towards the viewer establishes her position as the artist. She holds your glare and stops you in your tracks. As a viewer, despite her in her most vunerable state, you are completely at her mercy as an artist. She commands your attention and expects that continued attention throughout the rest of the exhibition. I enjoyed this aspect of the curation especially, to establish Neel’s latest, painted at the age of 80, and most poignant work in amongst her earliest, and some could say lesser developed paintings.

Beginning with Neel’s early work from the mid 1920s, the exhibition explores Neel’s relationship with Havana, New York and the intimate cultures living within those spaces. The works range from politically driven watercolour paintings, graphite drawings of individuals in intimate spaces to Neel’s most recognisable oil portraits – as she calls them, the ‘collection of souls.’ Neel Captures and celebrates marginalised identities not ordinarily the subjects of portraits, which were traditionally reserved for aristocracy. Neel opens a space of recognition for these marginalised figures: pregnant women, queer activists, Black and Puerto Rican children and civil rights advocates. She takes the most extraordinary people, and captures moving, beautiful moments with these figures in an incomparable way. This comes from her unique process of having someone sit for her painting. Many people who have sat for Alice Neel commend her for her ability to be vulnerable with her sitters, in turn creating an atmosphere for them to be vulnerable also. This vulnerability and openness for a sitter to feel when being painted, is what really makes the portraits moving.

As much as I admire Alice Neel’s work between the 1920s to mid 1960s, there is something about the portraits she created beyond that point that I can’t help but favour. The way in which she depicts people comforts me. She paints ordinary figures, in a fun, wonky and eccentric way. Despite this kind of abstraction of portraiture, which was unpopular at the time, the distorted faces become even more beautiful in their strangeness. The Family (John Gruen, Jane Wilson and Julia), 1970, is one of my favourite paintings displayed in the exhibition. The colours are energetic and eye-catching. This is aided by the great curation of the walls and surrounding decoration. The vibrant yellow of the carpet against the neural tones of the figures really stand out of the painting. The relaxed, gestural paint strokes further invite the viewer to become a part of the composition, a part of the intimate spaces. The figures, although looking stern, look familiar. I feel like Alice Neel can really capture humanness in a painting. The people she paints are not depicted as Renaissance angels, yet they appear as real people, people you know or have met – and that’s what makes me love her work. I feel comfortable intruding in the intimate moments Neel presents – even if it is a portrait of a nude couple, it feels comfortable and innately human.

I found that one of the most moving paintings in the exhibition collection is the portrait of ‘Andy Warhol’. Once again, Neel can capture the most intimate, vulnerable of moments. Andy Warhol was famously shot by Valerie Solanas, a writer who appeared in one of Warhol’s films, and therefore left with large scars across his chest from surgical procedures. As a shy and insecure man at the best of times, this severe injury and it’s devastating marks were traumatic to Andy, pushing him to new levels of self-consciousness. Alice Neel paints Warhol in his most vulnerable state, topless and scars visible. The deconstruction of Warhol as a figure of venerance, an untouchable star of modern art, is potentially Neel’s way to rehumanise him. Warhol is unrecognisable in this image, hunched and looking away from the viewer, again suggesting insecurity in his raw state. Despite this painting creating a sense of sympathy, sorrow and comfortability, it again portrays Neel’s incredible ability, with her simple blue outline, to gift her subjects with a certain familiarity. Neel creates a relationship between her sitter and her audience, which is not often found in contemporary art.

Amongst the paintings exhibited there are a few documentary films, offering an exciting glimpse into life in the 1920s and 30s. These films bring realism to a romanticized era that is veiled in manners and politeness. I view this time as a time, completely separate from life now, in the 21st century - unrelatable and untouchable. The videos are a poignant reminder that there is a shared experience of people then, and now. Neel presents this familiarity in an effortless way, through exposing families in domestic settings, interacting as people continue to do so today.

Despite Neel’s works ranging from the 1920s to the 1980’s, many within this collection of works feel inherently modern. My focus in this review has been mainly on her later portraiture, yet Neel is a multifaceted artist. With work spanning across six decades, her rich and diverse career continues to be politically and socially relevant. Her later portraiture series feels to me like it could have been made today. This further highlights the timelessness in her works and her ability to capture mundane moments – ordinary, yet unique individual beauty.

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is on at the Barbican, London until the 21st May. If you have the chance to go, please take it and you won’t regret it.


Words: Ella Georgiou

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