Barbican (London) until 21st May 2023, £18
I’ve been doing this now for almost seven years, and I still find that I have internalised assumptions to be challenged.
Portraiture is a tricky genre. The younger me always thought it a boring one – and it can be. But if it’s boring, it’s often because there’s no challenge. For me an actually successful portrait finds the truth of the subject. Too many instead lean into how the sitter wants to see themselves. I get it, I do – money talks, and the client’s paying. But skill with painting does not always mean honesty.
Enter Alice Neel. Because of the preconceived prejudices above, I’ve never spent that much time with her work. But Hot Off The Griddle at the Barbican shows me how wrong I was.
It’s not that Neel considers the portrait to be any less political than those men & women who wished to appear distinguished & powerful did. But for her, the power is different: to Neel the act of painting people is a radical act. She is radical in who she chooses to depict, or how, or even the very act of continuing to paint portraits in an artistic climate which leaned into abstraction.
The chronological approach of the show feels inevitable for the space of the Barbican, separated into its alcoves. In some ways this works. I think it does a good job of grounding her career in an anti-establishment sentiment. It understands that her communism, the sense that people have more to unite than divide them, is absolutely fundamental to the success of her entire career.
But I also feel like in a way, this format allows the story to become disjointed. Neel’s ‘radicalism’ takes several forms over the decades from painting her bohemian milieu to the families of Spanish Harlem, and I think that what she is trying to do with these subjects is constantly evolving, her intentions finding their way to originality. But in this layout it particularly takes a while for the story to get where it’s going because we see each stage as totally separated, and forget the overall thread. The best example is when it feels like a fairly big leap from finishing upstairs to beginning the spectacular final rooms downstairs. Upstairs we finish with men in suits of the ’40s and ’50s – fairly conventional, with the emphasis on who she chose to paint rather than how. It feels almost incohesive with the freshness of the works of the 1960s onwards we find down the stairs: but of course, it’s not at all. The entire exhibition has been gearing us up to understand that Neel approaches people like nobody else does. But it leaves that for one space in favour of a different political bend, and it throws the whole train off.
I’ve previously kind of assumed that Neel ‘got lucky’ because of being in the right place at the right time, in terms of having a style which fit the zeitgeist. I now think I was half-right: she was in the right place & time for her talents to be sought out. Neel’s interests happened to coincide with a cultural shift which moved towards more freedom and honesty about who they were. Everything Neel has done up until that point gave her the talent to capture it.
Neel is extremely good at capturing hidden dynamics. In individuals, she seems able to spot what’s going on beneath the surface of how her subjects present themselves. A young man wants to be a grown-up, maybe even a tough one, but Neel can somehow capture that desire, and also show us right through it to their vulnerability in an instant. And in family and couple dynamics the effect is extraordinary. She captures the subtleties of gesture and poses which let you into the intimate details of the subjects’ relationships, their innermost thoughts about each other and themselves.
What about Neel’s approach to herself? Apart from some little watercolours from the 1930s which capture her relationship with self-compassion, she only painted one self-portrait – and waited until her later years to do so. I understand her reticence to depict herself – it’s one thing to turn this honesty on others, quite another to do it to yourself. The show opens with this self-portrait, a nude study of the artist holding her paintbrush. But I’m not convinced about this display decision at all. Hung in a room on its own against dark walls, highlighted with a single spot, it’s an icon. An object for awed devotion.
It’d be a bold statement to make at the start of any show – making them worthy of reverence before we’ve even seen what they do – but it feels particularly at odds with what Neel stood for. The power of her work, her entire ethos and politics, is about union with other people. Indeed the rest of the show is about this, how she could see people by being on their level, no matter who they were. To be made separate in their way, in a work to be seen as more special than the others, doesn’t feel right. One of the portraits in the show is of Linda Nochlin – she of Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? fame. I think about this essay in regards to this display of Neel’s self-portrait, for I wonder whether it’s an attempt to place her in the same pantheon of Great Artists as her male predecessors. But Nochlin’s point was that “greatness” doesn’t exist at all without social context, that the canon is nonsense and that this way of demanding “greatness” should be dismantled. Hot Off The Griddle undoubtedly shows why Neel was a fantastic painter, that her work deserves our attention. But I come out of this feeling that Neel’s greatness was in being one of the people – that social context was key to her success. Her wonderful, radical honesty was always a gesture of solidarity – and this is what’s really worth taking from this artistically wonderful show.