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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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This widely celebrated Beat film was directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie and features an improvised narrative by Jack Kerouac. Only the local taxi driver Abdul Rahman appears tickled with conspiratorial laughter to find himself now her sitter and not the other way round. Quotations and titles utilise an alternate set of narrow capital characters, creating a slight sense of unease and distorted proportions when blown up to larger sizes, especially within the exhibition space. These are people allowing themselves to be painted, and each picture represents a letting-in, a moment of intimacy. The Barbican’s much anticipated new exhibition puts an influential but largely undervalued artist firmly in her place as one of the most important portrait painters of the 20th century.

The Barbican exhibition also includes her only full-sized self-portrait, completed when Neel turned 80. More significantly, these were two white women who made New York their muse, documenting the social history playing out beneath their window. She still looked for subjects with traumatic stories, even if it meant exclaiming to strangers across the park. Her subsequent portraits of people in precarious situations are even more intimate in their emotions and detail than her earlier work.Largely unrecognised for her work during her lifetime, Neel has since come to be championed for the candour with which she looked at the world. Neel wanted to capture how “beat” he looked when he walked through the door: “I feel that it expressed his troubled life more than the first.

This is a terrific selection, superbly curated by Eleanor Nairne and her team with utmost empathy (and the most eloquent captions you will find). Her personal life is covered comprehensively in the exhibition – full of partners, children, encounters and cultural phenomena. The Marxist activist hooks one leg over the chair and raises an arm to expose the dark hair in her pit and yet it all goes awry; the seductive pose, the clothes and the anxious intelligence in her face are at odds. There’s a wonderful moment in the show where you head into the airier, larger downstairs galleries from the more compressed upstairs rooms, and you feel a surge of new confidence.The Art Gallery is located on Level 3 and can be accessed by stairs and lifts from Level G or via the Sculpture Court if coming from outside. According to Neel, one painting that did so was that of her son Richard, in a suit and looking drained: Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1979). In every painting, there’s an anchor that pulls you in, though, whether in the pose, details of dress, or Neel’s endlessly fascinating treatment of hands. Peslikis’s right leg hangs over the armrest while her curling right arm shows off an unshaven armpit.

Neel has observed details about the mother-child relationship that have come from her own mothering experience, the veins of her breast, the dress pushed down to expose the breast, the dark eyes.

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. In this, Neel may be Henri’s truest disciple, but, as this show demonstrates, she has a kinder eye, a concern to show not just oppression and debasement but dignity and beauty also. Face versus body, the mind in spite of the physique, or perhaps the life itself: that seems a steady fascination.

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