Europe Gets Introduced To A Great American Portraitist, Alice Neel.

Alice Neel paintings
detail from Alice Neel’s 1965 portrait of Hartley, the artist’s son.

The work of Artist Alice Neel has finally reached Europe with a comprehensive retrospective of the American painter’s impressive portraiture. An inspiring exhibition, and the first major retrospective of one of the 20th century’s greatest portrait painters, American artist Alice Neel, has made its way to London’s Whitechapel Gallery after debuting last fall at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Work of Artist Alice Neel

The late artist, who passed away in 1984, one of my personal favorites who clearly inspired several of my other favorite portrait painters (Lucian Freud, David Hockney and David Tomb) and is best known for her portraits of celebrated artists and writers.

detail from Alice Neel’s Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1970

The comprehensive exhibit, Alice Neel: Painted Truths, features 68 paintings divided into sections according to Neel´s thematic preoccupations: allegory, the essential portrait, the psychological portrait, portraits from memory, cityscapes, nudes, parents and children, the detached gaze, and old age.

A young Alice Neel surrounded by some of her works in her Harlem Studio, 1944. (photo still courtesy of See Think Studios)
left: Alice Neel stands before her 1980 self-portrait; right: 1970 photo by Brigid Berlin of Andy Warhol sitting for Neel.

If you are not familiar with this monumental talent, here are images of almost half the exhibit, divided up by decades, rather than themes.

Early works from the 30s and 40s:

Ed Meschi, 1933:
Alice Neel, Ed Meschi, 1933
alice neel paintings
Alice Neel, Ninth Avenue El, 1935
alice neel portraits
Alice Neel, Elenka, 1936
left: Alice Neel, Jose, 1936; right: Alice Neel, Audrey McMahon, 1940
Alice Neel, T. B. Harlem, 1940
Alice Neel, Dead Father, 1946
Alice Neel, Dead Father, 1946
Alice Neel, Richard, 1945
Alice Neel, Fire escape, 1948
Alice Neel, Fire escape, 1948

Works from the 50s and 60s:

portriats by alice neel
Alice Neel, Dor Ashton, 1952
Alice Neel, The Last Sickness, 1953
Alice Neel, Sam, 1958
Alice Neel, Frank O’Hara 2, 1960
Alice Neel, Max White, 1961
Alice Neel, Robert Smithson, 1962
Alice Neel, Hartley, 1965

Later works from the 70s and 80s:

Alice Neel, David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock, 1970
Alice neel painting of andy warhol
Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970
Alice Neel, Jackie Curtis and Rita, 1970
Alice Neel, Pregnant Woman, 1971
Alice Neel, Pregnant Woman, 1971
Alice Neel, Nancy and the twins, 1971
Alice Neel, Nancy and the twins, 1971
Alice Neel, Carmen and Judy, 1972
Alice Neel, Carmen and Judy, 1972
Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth, 1976
Alice Neel, The De Vegh Twins, 1975
Alice Neel, Victoria and Cat, 1980
Alice Neel, Victoria and Cat, 1980
Alice Neel, Don Perlis and Jonathan, 1984
Alice Neel, Don Perlis and Jonathan, 1984
Alice Neel, Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian, 1978
Alice Neel, Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian, 1978
Alice Neel, Self-portrait, 1980
Alice Neel, Self-portrait, 1980
Alice Neel, Ginny, 1984

In addition, two archival films play on loop in the gallery: an eight-minute silent film by Neel´s son Hartley, documenting the artist painting her daughter-in-law Ginny; and Michel Auder´s film showing Neel painting Margaret Evans Pregnant.

International Tour
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: March 21—June 13, 2010
Whitechapel Gallery, London, July 8—September 17, 2010
Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden, October 10, 2010—January 2, 2011

from the original press release:
Committed to portraiture throughout her life, an era when the genre was considered practically obsolete, Neel captured both the physical likenesses and the psychological essences of her sitters in bold, sometimes searing paintings. Neel painted neighbors in her gritty Manhattan district and members of the art-world elite, as well as her lovers, friends and children. Alice Neel: Painted Truths is the first major museum exhibition of Neel´s work in ten years, and the first to present her work in Europe. The show examines Neel´s oeuvre from a highly focused perspective, showcasing masterworks culled from the 1920s to the 1980s. Along with her famous portraits, a section of the show will also be devoted to her lesser-known cityscapes that document tenement life from the inside.

Alice Neel: Painted Truths is organized by the MFAH and co-curated by Barry Walker, MFAH curator of modern and contemporary art and curator of prints and drawings, and Jeremy Lewison, former Director of Collections of London´s Tate Gallery and currently an independent curator and advisor of the estate of Alice Neel. After the presentation in Houston, the show will travel to Whitechapel Gallery in London and Moderna Museet in Malmö. The show will be accompanied by a major catalogue distributed by Yale University Press.

“Despite almost single-handedly reviving portraiture in the 20th century—with a little help from contemporaries like Andy Warhol, of course—Neel did not receive recognition until late in life,” said Dr. Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. “Neel´s work is a true tour de force, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is pleased to present a selection of the most compelling paintings by this seminal American artist. The tour will give European audiences their first opportunity to assess the full range of her achievement in a large-scale museum exhibition.”

“Because so many exhibitions have plumbed Alice Neel´s engaging bohemian life to interpret her work, we have focused on the art rather than the biography in Painted Truths, examining it from both traditional and postmodern points of view,” states Walker. “This is, to use a politically incorrect term, a ´masterpiece show,´ tracing the evolution of the artist´s work through what are, arguably, her very best paintings.”

Alice Neel: Painted Truths is showing at the Whitechapel Gallery from July 8 through September 17, 2010

If you can’t see the exhibit in person, a lavishly illustrated book of the exhibit is available with essays by Jeremy Lewison, Barry Walker, Tamar Garb and Robert Storr, appreciations by artists Frank Auerbach and Chris Ofili, and a chronology.

Although this book focuses on Neel’s portraits, it includes a selection of her cityscapes that chronicle the artist’s intense involvement with life in New York City. Structured thematically, sections trace the evolution of Neel’s style and examine themes that she revisited throughout her career.

Hardback, 296 pages, 120 colour and 26 black and white illustrations.
Buy the book here

Alice Neel: Painted Truths, as it appeared at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

above photos: courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Special thanks to Macolm Varon, the Estate of Alice Neel, and the MFA in Houston for many of the images.

some reviews of the London show:
The Guardian
The Independent
The Telegraph

Shop here for Alice Neel Books, catalogs, videos and posters.