HomeCultureArt & Theatre

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle exhibition review

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle exhibition review

Alice Neel's Hot Off The Griddle exhibition has arrived at the Barbican, and it's mesmerising. Melissa Chemam explores Alice Neel's art and legacy

“One of the reasons I painted was to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle…the vitality is taken out of real living,” said the committed American painter, Alice Neel, a feminist and activist, whose work still looks ahead of her time.

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. 

Regularly judged as out of fashion by art critics throughout different period of art history, portraits of regular people and street protests too often got overlooked by art exhibitions. Here the viewers are free to travel back in time in the New York of the 1930s to the one of the 1980s, via Cuba and other Latin American countries where Neel lived. 

"One of the reasons I painted was to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle"

Describing herself as "a collector of souls”, Neel worked in New York during a period in which figurative painting was indeed deeply unfashionable. Crowned the "court painter of the underground,” her canvases celebrate those who were too often marginalised in society: labour leaders, Black and Puerto Rican children, pregnant women, Greenwich Village eccentrics, civil rights activists and queer performers.  

She was also very close to the US Communist Party, and not afraid to take a stance. For this reason, some of her radical portraits even caught the attention of the FBI.

Politically-aware work 

Luckily, in recent years, her politically-aware work has reached the attention of a younger generation of artists and curators. Organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou, Paris, this exhibition brings together over 70 of Neel’s most vibrant portraits, shown alongside archival photography and film, bringing to life what she called "the swirl of the era”. 

It offers a rare opportunity to see these incomparable figurative canvases, reflections of an empathetic gaze that accompanied the history of the United States throughout the 20th century. 

Alice Neel Support the Union, 1937 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel, Support the Union, 1937 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

Neel often said, “I am the century.” Born in 1900 and active until her death in 1984, she does not always appear on the lists of the greatest painters of the century in the United States, but she certainly deserves it.  

Articulated chronologically, the exhibited canvases display her visual representations of notions, such as the class and the gender struggles in America, highlighting her political and social commitment, and offering the public a rich and disturbingly beautiful work.

What strikes the eyes is the powerful traits of her figurative choices, borrowing elements of expressionism not too dissimilar to a painter like German artist Max Beckmann, or the American painter Henry Taylor.

Alice Neel’s amazing but tumultuous life 

Trained in painting and design in Pennsylvania, Neel quickly moved to New York and met the wealthy Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez, whom she married in 1924, aged just 24, before leaving with him for Havana. From then on, she embarked on an intense life. Their first daughter was born two years later, then died on their return to New York in 1927, where they lived in the Bronx.

A year later, Enriquez disappeared without Neel to Cuba with their second daughter, leaving the artist heartbroken and on the verge of suicide. She was only 28 years old. Then, a year later, as she fell into a mental breakdown, the Great Depression hit the United States. 

"Neel transformed her personal dramas into a source of radical empathy"

Yet Neel transformed her personal dramas into a source of radical empathy, focusing on the fate of her fellow citizens with passion, to nourish her work as an artist. She resumed painting after a stay in a psychiatric hospital, and moved to Greenwich Village in 1931.  

From then on, her figurative works reproduced street scenes, or represented the daily poverty of the dilapidated neighbourhoods of Harlem, as well as demonstrations for labour rights or against the rise of fascism in Europe.  

Her work 

Her tumultuous love life then led her to live in Spanish Harlem, where immigrant communities abounded, and where she produced breath-taking portraits of characters from her daily life. Most become friends. All along the exhibition, quotes from Neel help fathoming the living conditions of these characters. 

Alice Neel The Spanish Family, 1943 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel, The Spanish Family, 1943 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

“In politics as in life, I have always liked losers, underdogs,” said Neel. This is what her paintings reflect, but not as a series of two-dimensional “losers”; rather through an alchemy that restores dignity and grandeur to those who suffered or those who were banished from society. 

First exhibition and TIME cover 

Neel’s first major exhibition in the US took place in 1944, at the Rose Fried Gallery. During the 1960s, she delved deeper in her feminist ideas, in favour of the civil rights movement, the rights of homosexuals, and more. In 1970, her portrait of feminist activist Kate Millet even made it onto the cover of TIME Magazine.  

"Neel not only lived with her time, she anticipated it"

Neel not only lived with her time, she anticipated it. And the aesthetic force with which her canvases, powerful and colourful, reflect her commitments is revealed with a rare depth through this exhibition, magnificently orchestrated by the curators. 

Major exhibitions worldwide 

In 1974, her work was celebrated with a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York; she was 74 years old. Then followed international recognition with an exhibition in Moscow in 1981, which was close to her heart. 

Nude portraits 

In the last part of her life, Neel got passionate about nude portraits, especially of women, pregnant or corpulent, in love and languorous, mothers or prostitutes, never without any judgement.

Alice Neel Self - Portrait, 1980 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel,

Alice Neel, Self-Portrait, 1980 © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel,

One of her last painting was actually a nude of herself, of which she said, at 80: “All my life I wanted to do a nude self-portrait, but I put it off till now, when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity.”  

Legacy 

A daring, courageous and over-talented painter, Alice Neel has now entered the pantheon of the greatest 20th century artists, along with the likes of Dora Maar, Leonora Carrington and Lubaina Himid, for too long overlooked in history books.  

Cover image: 06. Alice Neel Hot Off The Griddle, Installation view, Barbican Art Gallery, 16 February–21 May 2023 © Eva Herzog

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...