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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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Her family were straight-laced Pennsylvanians, with her mother once telling her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl. If Neel loved her sitters briefly or for a lifetime, and loved them for their insecurities, imperfections, beauty, and the sheer torment of what it feels like to be adrift in the modern world, then we leave loving them a little too.

Speaking on her pregnant nudes, Neel said, “It isn’t what appeals to me, it’s just a fact of life… I feel as a subject it’s perfectly legitimate, and people out of a false modesty, or being sissies, never show it… Something that primitives did, but modern painters have shied away from because women were always done as sexual objects.Although its absurdity marks it out from much of her work, it is nevertheless typical of her style, insofar as it is, in its painting , still deliberately unshowy and perhaps even flat. Women lean out of them to talk to neighbours; toddlers pull faces against the glass; people hang from sills as if they were stalls at a theatre. All along the exhibition, quotes from Neel help fathoming the living conditions of these characters. Each week, we send newsletters and communication featuring articles, our latest tickets invitations, and exclusive offers.

Even the children are sitting quietly: the girls of Black Spanish-American Family (1950) with their hands folded in their laps, the daughter in The Family (1970) looking watchfully back at us. Neel had never had much of a profile; the turn towards abstract expressionism hadn’t been kind to her distinctly representational mode of portraiture. a painting by the Pennsylvania-born artist Alice Neel, a young Puerto Rican boy sits on a dining chair wearing a striped shirt and a large medallion. The pregnant woman, also naked, tries to hold steady on a too-small chair as the new life inside threatens to topple her. She grew up in a small conservative town in Pennsylvania with little culture, and her mother rebuffed her dreams of becoming an artist.

Her personality and sense of humour shines through, along with her immense pride and beaming smile at finally being accepted. It never betrays Neel by sidestepping the graceless, sorry or awkward in her art, just as she never ignored it in life.

The main gallery is a kind of all-together-now vision of a certain time and place: downtown Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s. Another work on display, by Jenny Holzer, is a wonderful fragment of biography: in 1955, when federal agents came to interrogate her over her Communist Party membership, Neel unsuccessfully tried to get them to sit for a painting. It was also driven by a motivation to capture the people from the world around her in its reality rather than beautifying, particularly if that meant shining a light on inequalities and the full spectrum of humanity. The 1940s ushered in abstraction, which became the dominant mode of artistic expression, something which Alice Neel always resisted. In 1924 she met the Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez Gomez, and in 1925 they married and relocated to Havana.Crowned the ‘court painter of the underground,' her canvases celebrate those who were too often marginalised in society: labour leaders, Black and Puerto Rican children, pregnant women, Greenwich Village eccentrics, civil rights activists and queer performers.

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