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Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle

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The Harlem portraits that feature alongside In The Street —of a young Georgie Acre, Neel’s neighbour who would later go to prison for murder, holding a knife and wearing a costume necklace; of a Spanish family sitting on a stoop in front of a lattice gate—are from just moments in a career that spanned the 20th Century (Neel was born in 1900). 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 American painter was saying ‘Who needs abstractions or modernism when just existing is a political act? Neel reflected how her first portrait, which was made over five lengthy sittings (and is not on show in Paris), saw O’Hara resemble “a romantic falconlike profile with a bunch of lilacs”.Another example of this mode, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), depicts a young man who has just been drafted after Lyndon B. Elsewhere, the Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks and his open-shirted lover Brian Buczak are pictured like tired-eyed hipsters wearing their clothes from the night before. 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. In October 1955, FBI agents visited Neel to question her regarding her ties to the Communist party – this was at the height of the Cold War, when she had been identified as a ‘romantic, Bohemian type Communist’ .

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is the largest exhibition to date in the UK of the work of American artist Alice Neel (1900–1984). Neel was a self-declared non-feminist but it was no surprise feminists embraced her for her tenacity at continuing to make her work despite being ignored by the male-dominated system she wanted to be part of. 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. Her family were straight-laced Pennsylvanians, with her mother once telling her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl. Neel had never had much of a profile; the turn towards abstract expressionism hadn’t been kind to her distinctly representational mode of portraiture.Alice Neel (1900–1984) worked in New York at a time when figurative painting was deeply unfashionable.

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