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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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Born in 1900, Alice Neel painted figuratively in New York during a period in which it was deeply unfashionable to do so. They managed to live a “nice lifestyle” nonetheless, Neel’s son Hartley told a journalist after her death. She saw herself as “an anarchic humanist” and it was this that motivated her commitment to the figurative: “Human beings have been steadily marked down in value, despised, rejected and degraded. The artist, who described herself as “the collector of souls”, moved to Harlem in the early 1940s with a nightclub owner. 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.

To me the wonder was at her bloody-mindedness in sticking to her guns and her increasing virtuosity at rendering these figures in paint. Born on 28 January 1900, “four weeks younger than the century”, as she liked to say, Neel is perhaps the most astute and penetrating people-watcher of that tumultuous century of American history. She’d endured critical rejection and mental collapse, with only a few, small-time exhibitions to her name.The only reason it was sensitive is that something is embarrassing about being on welfare,” he said.

How, then, can this be the same artist whose legacy now includes solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London’s Tate Modern, and, as of today, The Barbican? Reader’s Digest is a member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (which regulates the UK’s magazine and newspaper industry). It opens with sensationally beautiful drifts of colour and light across a vast horizontal canvas by Helen Frankenthaler, titled April Mood. As Neel explained, ‘I like to paint people who are in the rat race, suffering all the tension and damage that’s involved in that… The awful struggle that goes on in the city’. As this new exhibition opens this week at the Barbican Centre in London (on display until May 21, 2023), her figurative portraits of the dispossessed in Spanish Harlem and of some of her fellow activist friends appear more relevant than ever.Neel’s focus on figurative painting accounts for the relative obscurity in which her work fell; the exhibition Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle, organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou, Paris, offers an unmissable opportunity to re-assess her position within the art world. She holds a paintbrush in one hand, a rag in another, but omits the canvas itself, perhaps to expose the rawness of her being more, to force us to look harder. The technical storage or access is strictly necessary for the legitimate purpose of enabling the use of a specific service explicitly requested by the subscriber or user, or for the sole purpose of carrying out the transmission of a communication over an electronic communications network.

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