45 in Focus:
A portraitist in the age of abstraction and a working woman in the era of macho Formalism, Alice Neel bucked convention at every turn. As figuration fell out of favor around midcentury, bowing to gestural expressionism and cool minimalism, Neel forged ahead with the figural style she had first developed in the 1930s, deepening and refining her distinctive combination of abstract color, gestural paint application, and searing portraiture. With Mannerist flourish and expressive color, Neel delves into the inner psychological lives of her sitters, seeking a truth beyond the purely visual. Her unique style reflected personal encounters with the world and the diverse neighborhoods where she lived and worked.
Alice Neel at forty with paintings in her apartment, 1940.
Photo: Sam Brody. © Estate of Alice Neel
Neel’s sitters were drawn from her circle of friends, family, and neighbors, and later from Manhattan’s art world – the gallerists, critics, artists, activists, and outsized personalities who floated through the heady ether of the 1960s and 70s. They were asked to dress and pose themselves, without intervention from the artist (aside from the occasional suggestion to undress, as Neel was wont to make). In this way they are uniquely of their moment, full of individual style and personality. The artist developed deep connections with her subjects during portrait sessions, dissolving the boundary between artist and sitter. “I became that person for a couple of hours,” she explains, “so that when they leave and I am finished, I have no self.”
In the summer of 1972, Neel traveled to Greece and Africa with her son Hartley and dear friend John Rothschild. As part of this trip, the group visited Nairobi, where businessman and local radio personality Peter Kanuthia had arranged an exhibition of her work at the Paa Ya Paa Art Gallery and Studio. Kanuthia sat for Neel during a reciprocal visit to New York the following year. He looks every bit the professional here, in a well-cut tan suit and matching tie, crisp blue shirt, and sporting a prominent gold watch. He appears relaxed – his hands at ease as he sinks into the plush chair. And yet the stiff collar swallows his neck in a manner that belies a bit of tension or discomfort. This dichotomy between physical ease and psychological tension is characteristic of Neel’s work.
“The portraits are not so much a record of intimacy as a call to intimacy, and in that engagement the viewer is invited to invest the sitter with psychological depth.”
- Jeremy Lewison, in Alice Neel: Painted Truths
45 at 45: L.A. Louver Celebrates 45 Years with 45 Artists
(left to right - Alice Neel, Rebecca Campbell and Daniel Crews-Chubb)
Beyond serving as a record of the times, Neel’s project drew from art historical precedents, in particular the volumetric approach of Cézanne. Viewed closely, her deft pairing of light and dark tones and lively brushstrokes bring a sense of life and space into the work that reaches into an abstraction that feels truer than what vision may provide.
"Her work records a readiness to trust and confide. It reveals an awareness of others that unfolds in thrilling repose, leading to an encounter of a special order that takes time and allows for an unusual, communicative exchange.”
- Bice Curiger, in Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life
In 2010, L.A. Louver presented a large group of Neel’s portraits, her first significant exhibition on the West Coast in over two decades. The gallery’s engagement with modernist portraiture was already well established, through its long relationships with artists such as David Hockney and Leon Kossoff. Reviewing the exhibition, Leah Ollman wrote in the L.A. Times: “In this, as in many of Neel’s most striking works, she toggles between sketchy outline and more detailed finish. She leaves patches of canvas bare next to areas more fully rendered. As an analog to identity’s lack of fixity, its perpetual fluidity, this pictorial strategy could not be more potent. It’s also a compelling reminder that every realist painter is also practicing a fundamentally abstract art, organizing shapes and lines, solids and voids, hues and tones across a flat surface. Composition reinforces content and vice versa."