In a new exhibition at the Barbican, the communist artist Alice Neel’s humane portraits capture the fighters, victims and figures of America’s twentieth-century turmoil.

Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd, 1970

‘The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theatre and a battleground,’ reads the opening card of Helen Levitt’s In The Street. At the Barbican’s Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle, Levitt’s documentary, a loose assembly of footage from the streets of 1935 East Harlem, features alongside Alice Neel’s portraits of the area’s inhabitants. Neel and Levitt were acquaintances, if not actually friends: Levitt, a pioneering street photographer, had developed her practice with the Workers’ Film and Photo League, founded by Neel’s abusive, on-off partner Sam Brody; both artists had spent their Depression cobbling together a living from Holger Cahill’s Federal Art Project. More significantly, these were two white women who made New York their muse, documenting the social history playing out beneath their window.  

Windows are key vantage points in In The Street. Women lean out of them to talk to neighbours; toddlers pull faces against the glass; people hang from sills as if they were stalls at a theatre. The real action happens in the street below. Children in Halloween masks pelt each other with chalk, the white clouds like tear gas. They dance and cry and set off fire hydrants. More intimate and tender than the ‘city street’ films that were Levitt’s main influences—Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera being the most famous example—Levitt’s film is no less surreal. Why is the boy wearing a cardboard box on his head? Why is this woman waltzing with a mop? The street is a strange place, ‘a theatre and a battleground’ in constant motion, where everything is a performance, and all too real.  

Hot Off The Griddle takes its title from what Neel described as her desire to, like Levitt, ‘catch life as it goes by, hot off the griddle’. 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). She resisted the term’ portrait’—too bourgeois—preferring ‘pictures of people’. By the end of her career, everyone from taxi drivers to drag queens, poets to art world doyennes had been honoured with the same unflinching gaze.  

Portraits don’t usually come ‘hot off the griddle’; can ‘pictures of people’? Unlike the commotion captured by the split-second shutter of Levitt’s camera, Neel’s paintings aren’t instantaneous. With the exception of occasional panoramas, mostly of demonstrations—police on horseback charging striking workers; protestors marching in 1936, carrying signs that read ‘Nazis murder Jews’—Neel’s subjects are seated and still. These are people allowing themselves to be painted, and each picture represents a letting-in, a moment of intimacy. Even the children are sitting quietly: the girls of Black Spanish-American Family (1950) with their hands folded in their laps, the daughter in The Family (1970) looking watchfully back at us. Critic Hilton Als, curator of an earlier exhibition and a self-appointed laureate of all things Neel, writes of Carmen and Judy (1972), Neel’s painting of her Black cleaning lady nursing her disabled child, one hand protectively covering his genitals,’ privacy is one of the few defences there is against poverty and racism’. Part of what’s being represented is the trust itself, the willingness to expose vulnerability, on which the painting’s existence depends.  

Each of Neel’s subjects is treated with the same dignity, but it would be a mistake to read Neel’s paintings as empowering. They are a stark insight into struggle, vulnerability and pain, where the material conditions of living are inscribed on the bodies she paints. As Neel explained, ‘I like to paint people who are in the rat race, suffering all the tension and damage that’s involved in that… The awful struggle that goes on in the city’. You can see this in the bandages of a Harlem TB patient with a collapsed lung, but also in the stitches and corset holding together Andy Warhol’s body, post-Valerie Solana’s shooting. Everyone bears some rat race scars. In Neel’s portrait of Frank O’Hara, poet and New York darling, he has terrible teeth.  

The painting of Frank O’Hara was a turning point for Neel. In 1960, with a studio crammed full of pictures she couldn’t get exhibited, let alone sell, she rang O’Hara and requested a sitting. It was a tactical, even mercenary, move. Neel had never had much of a profile; the turn towards abstract expressionism hadn’t been kind to her distinctly representational mode of portraiture. Choosing an art world subject like O’Hara, rather than the local families, friends and activists she had tended to paint, brought with it a new degree of attention. As Neel’s profile grew, her choice of subjects expanded: alongside Vietnam conscripts and Village drag queens, the rich, powerful and famous began to appear. Regardless of the profile of her sitters, the portraits never lose their raw, often uncomfortable, intimacy: Neel’s refusal to look away. In spite of their status, these are New Yorkers who, as Als writes, ‘wore their otherness as both a form of fancy dress and a wound’. 

Even as her canvases moved away from the streets of Harlem, Neel remained a committed Communist Party member throughout her adult life. One of her first solo exhibitions was organised by Mike Gold, founder of The New Masses, whilst she made a living lecturing at Communist-organised adult education schools; decades later, she became the first American artist to have a retrospective in the USSR. The Barbican’s exhibition treats Neel’s politics as something of a curio, a by-product of the humanistic value she places on life rather than the other way around. The FBI watchlist file about her, in which she is described as a ‘romantic Bohemian type communist’, appears front and centre in the first room (Neel vehemently rejected Bohemianism for its own sake: ‘I hate Bohemians, frankly’). But for Neel, having once been a single mother raising her children off welfare, Marxism was ‘her way of understanding her own life’; it’s how she understood the lives of her sitters, too. Her ability to capture individuality is rightly celebrated—but her focus was never on the individual as a category. Her subjects don’t exist in isolation. Instead, her portraits bear witness to a network of interrelations shaped by the dynamics of a city where, like in Levitt’s film, people from every race and class rub up against each other.  

In the Barbican’s final room, a portrait of Gus Hall, leader of the Communist Party USA, sits beside one of porn activist Annie Sprinkle in full fetish gear. It’s a juxtaposition that verges on glib—Hall in his ushanka, Sprinkle in her leathers—but it speaks to Neel’s keen sense of her own moment as history and her delight in its contradictions and weirdnesses. This is what gives rise to the need to document, to ‘capture life hot off the griddle’. Her subjects aren’t just sitters; they’re historical actors. Hall and Sprinkle, Carmen and Judy, Frank O’Hara, Georgie Acre, the Spanish family sitting on the stoop: in Neel’s rendering, they are both the products of their moment and its agents of change.  

Hall and Sprinkle’s portraits were made in 1981 and 1982, when Neel was 81 and 82, respectively. Her 1900 birthdate is a gift when it comes to figuring out where her paintings sit in her biography, something Neel herself was aware of. ‘I represent the 20th Century’, she says in one documentary about her, ‘I was born in 1900, and I’ve tried to capture the zeitgeist’. 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). The picture doesn’t feature at the Barbican, but it’s fitting that the son of this daughter of the 20th Century became a Nixon-voting investment advisor. In another documentary about Neel’s life, Richard, sitting beneath the portrait of himself, talks about how he hates Bohemians, too.  

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