Living through and for her art, her paintings housed the social, exemplifying a process of ongoing [outward and self-] repair. Neel kept inventing ways to deal with what we have, truly gleeful about the world she was living in, and through her work, she emphatically answered the question of what is it all for if it isn’t our humanity. What inhabits all her paintings as she delves into the complex realities of personhood, taking the mick out of our conversations and so-called societal vices; is that she utterly persisted to document all the people who found their way to belong to her world. Neel painted the world as it was. She found the usually evading comfort in her life in front of a canvas with lucid brushwork, taunt marks, and paint that could be peeled, and washed away to start again. All the marks, layers, and colours, made for a renewed candour, and stories of lives that finally felt seen.
Never working in a professional studio, the sitters came charged with luring, the stretched lines flood out of each canvas allowing the viewer to enter her living room/studio, empathising with those depicted. The body is forever going somewhere else, as Neel rips through expectations of the female nude, flesh to flesh in all its glory. This is most significantly done with Self Portrait , Neel’s first self-portrait, which was composed at age 80. Paintbrush in hand, Neel is unflinching, so much so that she glows. This is a welcome riot painted with a stare filled to the brim, doubly directed right back and straight through you. Rigor and passion are entrenched, and the liberal cadence in applying paint to make her image remained for a whole generation.
Shadows uncovered and painting done recklessly, the material world is exposed and mirrored through her work, heaving in a state of flux as times changed around her. The traditional family portrait is revisited and reckoned with throughout the exhibition and her career, one of the most notable examples is the work The Spanish family . Drawn explicitly from the living, she paints her close friend with her three young children, the sister of Negrόn, an ex-partner. Neel and the sitter are placed as equals and held with compassion. All the hours spent with the sitter are wholly felt in the work. A documentary plays on a loop at the near close of the exhibition which invites us into a portrait sitting. At this point, we can just breathe, as we have invited ourselves to an intimate, honest, and tactile transaction – to witness a true rogue in action.
One of the rarest portraits on display is Andy Warhol , the breath held, and tension are unmistakable, as Warhol’s wounds and stitches are made incurable in their visibility. Warhol was a man who was visceral in his displeasure of his own physical appearance, yet submits and generates valour to be painted by Neel. This especially in such a vulnerable and no holds barred manner, is but a testament to his own reverence and respect towards Neel.
Figurative painting was waning in popularity during the 20th-century art scene, but as tenacious as Neel was, she kept on representing people in their rebecoming. Elated to heights far above, catering to the shifting spaces of the living room, the surrounding cityscapes of Greenwich village, Spanish Harlem, and Havana. The exhibition tours these eras of Neel’s life and works as they are inextricably entwined. These held spaces are all drawn from the people, most decisively within the portraits of those who shared her political commitments, like the intellectual Harold Cruse and the chairman of the Communist Party, Gus Hall painted in 1981. Neel carried her political activism right to the end of her life.
Never afraid of the white space, of left behind canvas not done up by a paintbrush, of any such process behind the lines being seen. The paint rather ate through and was made boldly bare to us. Take the example of the paintings Wellesley Girls  or The Family (John Gruen, Jane Wilson, and Julia) , any empty space is somehow full. Full of painted skin, these portraits are painted under a halo, skin laid bare by the brushwork, skin with a greenish tinge, see-through and clammy skin, and skin that blends with the background walls and sofa. The sitter is not favoured by told-tale vanity depictions. The flesh-to-flesh touch only for a cold draft to come through.
Honey-soaked open eyes, with a gaze unmatched, Annie Sprinkle  is a portrait of sex activist and performance artist Annie Sprinkle. Neel is always explicit in her values, affirming such through a portrait like Annie Sprinkle of fully embracing one’s own sexuality and for more societal freedoms. Alice Neel as she self-describes a collector of souls; is made unmistakable, this fact made each time more evident the more rooms you wade through in this show.
This is part of the war, with Alice Neel’s keen eyes, a card-carrying communist she truly endeavoured to make bold strokes for the revolutions and revelations which plagued and celebrated her people and her place called home.
Image: Alice NeelSelf-Portrait,1980© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel
Review by Devika Pararasasinghe
Devika is currently living and working in London, by trade an artist and snake oil salesperson. Devika graduated, last September with a research MFA at Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.
Devika’s latest review Review: Spain and the Hispanic World-Royal Academy of Arts – Now on until 10 April – Abundant Art
Tickets and information Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle | Barbican
Exhibition Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle at Barbican Art Gallery is curated by Eleanor Nairne, assisted by Andrew de Brúnand Annabel Bai Jackson,and designed by Gatti Routh Rhodes with graphic design by Wolfe Hall.This exhibition was made possible with Art Fund support.The exhibition will tour to Munch, Oslo, from 2 September–26 November 2023, for more information visit:https://www.munchmuseet.no/om-oss/kontakt/Events
A dynamic programme of events will accompany the exhibition. Check the website for full listings as they are updated:http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery
A richly illustrated book Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle,edited by Eleanor Nairne, with essays by Eleanor Nairne, Hilton Als and poetry by Daisy Lafarge, accompanies the exhibition and is published by Prestel, March 2023 is available at the Barbican shop.