Hilton Als on Alice Neel’s quietly political portraits of Harlem
Known for her portraits of family, friends, writers, poets, artists, students, singers, salesmen, activists and more, Alice Neel (1900-1984) created forthright, intimate and, at times, humorous paintings that both overtly and quietly engaged with political and social issues. In Alice Neel, Uptown, writer and curator Hilton Als brings together a body of paintings of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other people of color for the first time. Highlighting the innate diversity of Neel’s approach, the selection looks at those often left out of the art-historical canon and how this extraordinary painter captured them; ’what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered,’ Als writes.
The publication explores Neel’s interest in the extraordinary diversity of 20th-century New York City and the people among whom she lived. This group of portraits includes well-known figures such as playwright, actress, and author Alice Childress; the sociologist Horace R. Cayton, Jr.; the community activist Mercedes Arroyo; and the widely published academic Harold Cruse; alongside those of more anonymous individuals, such as a nurse, a ballet dancer, a taxi driver, a businessman, a local boy who ran errands for Neel, and other children and their families.
In short and illuminating texts on specific works written in his characteristic narrative style, Als writes about the history of each sitter and offers insights into Neel and her work, while adding his own perspective. A contemporary and personal approach to Alice Neel’s oeuvre, Als’ project is ’an attempt to honor not only what Neel saw, but the generosity of her seeing.’