Alice Neel Captures the Souls of Her Sitters, and Translates Them to Canvas

Alice Neel, the painter best known for bucking artistic fashion to document overlooked and often marginalized bodies, once referred to herself as “a collector of souls.” Her expressionistic and at times off-kilter studies, which brought her immense fame relatively late in life, are classics of American portraiture. A survey of her work spanning from the 1940s to the 1980s is currently on view at Xavier Hufkens, in the first show of Neel’s work in Belgium.

The exhibition, which comprises Neel’s paintings and drawings, provides a window into the artist’s idiosyncratic process—according to Neel, an effort of translation more than anything else. “That’s what I really am,” she once told the New York School critic and curator Henry Geldzahler. “A sympathetic, or sometimes not so sympathetic translator.” Using crooked lines and just slightly off-base colors, Neel lovingly captured the character of those who sat for her in all their flawed humanity. The drawings on display, rendered in black and white on paper, show Neel’s talent for creating lines of a subtly hallucinogenic quality, a callback to the expressionists that inspired her. 

But as a figurative painter practicing largely in New York at a time in which the art world skewed towards abstraction, minimalism, and pop art, Neel worked in obscurity for much of her life, piecing together two decade’s worth of portraits focused on those left behind by what she referred to as “the rat race of New York.” Subjects included gay and immigrant communities near Greenwich Village and Spanish Harlem, two neighborhoods in which she lived. When Neel began to receive critical attention in the ’60s, her sitters became better-known members of the city’s artistic community, including the writer, poet, and editor Michael Benedikt and the graphic designer Ron Kajiwara. Today, Neel’s work can be seen not just as a masterful study in the art of expressive portraiture, but as a kind of documentary project cataloging a wide swath of experiences during a highly charged moment in a densely packed city. 

M. Osberg

Alice Neel” is on view at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, Feb. 27–Apr. 11, 2015.

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