Seeing Alice Neel through the Eyes of Hilton Als
In Alice Neel’s painting Spanish Woman (1950), a woman is seated next to a table with flowers, her head tilted slightly, supported by a slender arm and curled fingers. She is complex, with a delicate body and gentle presence but a strong, curious intellect that emanates from intently focused eyes. Neel’s Black Man (1966), seated upright in a frontal posture, is similarly alert, his body leaning to one side of the chair, a little stiffly, perhaps, the expressiveness of his closed hands conveying a certain concentration.
The domestic environment in which both of these figures pose is warm and light, decorated with plants and flowers. Spanish Woman was likely painted in Neel’s home in Spanish Harlem, where the artist moved in 1938, eager to escape the bourgeois artist bubble of Greenwich Village; Black Man was perhaps created in a later apartment on the Upper West Side, where she moved in ’62. But the room itself matters little, because the presence of Neel’s figures is so strong that the space around them seems almost to dissolve, the live energy of the artist’s brushwork inflected with her subjects’ psychology.
Spanish Woman and Black Man are humans whose individuality belies their anonymous titles. They are two of the 32 portraits by Neel currently on view at David Zwirner’s 19th-Street galleries in New York, a “collection of souls,” as Hilton Als, the New Yorker writer and curator of the exhibition, described them at the press preview last week. The works he selected represent the great diversity of individuals Neel captured with her careful, inquisitive eye and fluid hand—Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and other people of color (in addition to her famous portraits of white sitters, including Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson).
As a woman, Neel felt a powerful affinity to all the “different” people, who were not white and male, but something other, Als said. She was strong-willed and independent, despite the social constraints on women at the time, and she had many lovers. “She wasn’t afraid of the erotics of looking,” Als explained. She also identified closely with left-wing politics. Late in her life, she would write a letter to Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, offering her services to him as an artist.
But what defines Neel’s portraits above all was her ability to look at people with fearlessness and compassion. “She’s greedy for the opportunity to connect with other souls,” Als said. It’s this same ability and curiosity that has shaped much of Als’s own work, in keenly observed profiles he has written over the past two decades, where he seems to observe his subjects through the eyes of numerous individuals. (This interest also shapes Als’s Instagram account, in which he captures candid portraits of individuals around New York City, a tapestry of the people he encounters in his daily life.)
Over the past year, he has turned his own eye and soul toward Neel, looking as much at her work in order to know her subjects as he does to connect more intimately with their creator. At another press event prior to the show’s opening, Als recounted spending a night in Neel’s former studio during his research, in order to absorb the ghosts of her spirit and her paintings. And the ghosts of midcentury Manhattan assert themselves with powerful agency in Zwirner’s galleries.
Among them are Horace R. Cayton, co-author of Black Metropolis, a canonical 1945 study of the African-American experience, who is sage and stylish, with deep set, haunted eyes and a tensed brow; Alice Childress, an influential African-American playwright and novelist, gazing out of a window, hands clasped, lost in an interior realm; and Ron Kajiwara, a designer at Vogue in the 1970s, who is lithe, androgynous, and iconic.
“His portrait,” said Als of Kajiwara, “is as much a report about a particular New York phenomenon as it is a record of style, a way of being. Inherently queer, bristly with attitude and dandy distance, and a most feminine softness behind pretend armor. Attitude as a kind of defense.” But Neel didn’t just paint New York’s influential cultural figures; she would paint anyone that walked through her front door.
Als described Puerto Rican children showing up at her East 108th Street apartment, asking for her to paint them; the artist was unable to refuse the opportunity to discover a new subject. She would paint someone like George Arce, or “Georgie,” a tough neighborhood kid who sat for her over several years, and who, Als notes in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, would eventually become a con artist and be convicted for murder. In sketches and paintings, you can see Neel hard at work trying to see beyond the layers of Georgie’s streetsmart and virile machismo, even as a young boy.
This is an exhibition rich in character, even literary, and all the more so for Als’s close attention to Neel’s life and work and his accompanying writing, for which he has gone in pursuit of the human stories embedded within Neel’s canvases. Als, like Neel, is interested in the textures of personalities, the language of one’s body and sexuality, the quality of a person’s voice.
“People talk about the isolation of people in her pictures,” Als said, “but I think there’s such an incredible amount of connection she’s bringing. I feel less alone as a person looking at her work. I hope that when I’m writing, the connection is real for people too. She’s taught me about the value of humanity—that humility is something really extraordinary.”
It’s perhaps telling that the opening to Als’s New Yorker text on Neel, an excerpt from the show’s catalogue, comes in the form of a long, personal lede about his own upbringing. Als recalls the feeling he felt as a boy of wanting to experience a “oneness” with the people around him. “I never want to do without love, even when I want to be alone,” he writes.
One beautiful passage, about why Als was drawn to the essay form as a way to unite his story with those of others, is worth including in full:
“In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but about the collective—all the voices that made your ‘I.’ When I first saw Alice Neel’s pictures, I think I recognized a similar ethos of inclusion in her work. The pictures were a collaboration, a pouring in of energy from both sides—the sitter’s and the artist’s.”
In some way, this exhibition is a lesson in humanity. It’s a reminder that in order to really see someone, you must meet that person with honesty, vulnerability, and the gift of your own story.