How Alice Neel’s Sharp, Compassionate Eye Painted Harlem

[Originally published in The Atlantic]

The artist’s portraits of neighbors, icons, and strangers show a keen and democratic attention to detail.

A detail from Alice Neel's portrait A detail from “Mercedes Arroyo,” 1952DAVID ZWIRNER GALLERY

When, in 1938, Alice Neel decided to relocate from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem with José Negrón, a musician and her then-boyfriend, she was making a bold yet potentially career-destroying move. During the early ’30s, Neel had participated in New York’s first open-air exhibitions, held in Washington Square, which had begun to put the city on the map as a hotbed of abstract art—and had befriended artists like Joseph Solman, who would go on to found The Ten, a prominent group of expressionist painters.

In addition to being part of the decade’s zeitgeist as led by downtown artists, Neel’s own star was ascendant: In 1932, the Philadelphia Inquirer had written that her paintings “reveal[ed] the possession of interpretive gifts out of the ordinary,” while at the American Artists’ Congress exhibition in 1936, her work was singled out for recognition in the New York World Telegram. Why then, her peers might have wondered, would an artist who was just beginning to garner critical attention shun the New York art world’s epicenter for a poorer neighborhood that few knew or cared about?

The answer to this question might lie in the retrospective Alice Neel, Uptown, a fascinating exploration of the painter’s symbiotic relationship with Harlem. The show, on view at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, is curated by the New Yorker critic Hilton Als, who describes Neel’s subjects as “artists, writers, everyday people, thinkers, and upstarts of color”—all of whom she painted over the course of the nearly 50 years she lived and worked uptown, before her death in 1984. The potent yet personable paintings, mostly done in oil, are enduring proof of Neel’s curious, compassionate eye, on and off the canvas. “Whether I’m painting or not, I have this overweening interest in humanity,” she once said. “Even if I’m not working, I’m still analyzing people.”

The burbling, bohemian vibe of Greenwich Village didn’t hold much interest to the Pennsylvania-born Neel (she thought it too “honky-tonk”), and her portraits were at odds with the abstract expressionism that would come to dominate the New York art scene. As the art historian Jeremy Lewison has written, “Neel’s devotion to the realist depiction of the human form in an era of increasing abstraction … confirmed her position as an outsider.” Her indifference to the artistic trends of the time was partly a result of having spenta year (1926-1927) living in Cuba, with her first husband Carlos Enríquez, also a painter. According to Phoebe Hoban, in her book Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, it was while immersed in Havana’s art scene that Neel came to believe that art could be political, revolutionary, and sociological, documenting and capturing everyday people in times of social crisis and cultural change.

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Lola on CNN.com: Nigeria needs more than new leaders to change

Nigeria needs more than new leaders to change

By Lola Adesioye, Special to CNN
October 1, 2010 2:20 p.m. EDT
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nigeria celebrates 50 years of independence on the 1st of October
  • According to Adesioye, Nigeria’s wealth is represented by its people
  • Nigeria’s transformation depends on mindset shift from the people and not just change in leadership, she says
Editor’s note: New York-based British/Nigerian commentator Lola Adesioye is a regular contributor of commentary and features to a range of media including The Economist, The Huffington Post and CNN. She writes for CNN.com as Africa’s most populous country marks 50 years of independence Friday. 
(CNN) — People are corrupt. The elite don’t care. The leaders steal from the people. Everything is falling apart and no one is doing anything about it. These are just some of the complaints regularly made by Nigerians about Nigeria.
There’s no doubt that these are valid complaints. Indeed, the car bombs which hit the capital Abuja Friday — — as the president and other heads of state gathered to celebrate the country’s 50 year anniversary — have highlighted that there are serious unresolved issues that Nigeria is contending with.
Widespread corruption, disenfranchisement of the people, greed and fraud have profoundly impacted the nation for years, resulting in a country that is operating well below its full potential in nearly every area.
Just last year, Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria warned that the country risked becoming irrelevant if it did not catch up with other, better-managed African countries, such as Ghana, who are gaining prominence on the international stage.
As Nigeria celebrates 50 years of independence, it is clear that a major social and political transformation is needed if Nigeria is to move from being one of the poorest 20 countries in the world.
It will take more than a reshuffle for Nigeria to capitalize on its oil revenues (it has the capacity to produce over 3.2 million barrels of oil per day, yet only produces about 2.224 million due to unrest and security concerns in the Niger Delta); advance its technology sector, and massively expand the overall wealth and health of its general populace.
The old defunct way must be replaced with a new way, based on collaboration, a focus on the greater good and a bottom-up, citizen-oriented approach to leadership that will propel the country to greatness.
The real wealth of a country lies in its people and people is one resource that Nigeria has in abundance.
–Lola Adesioye
Nigeria’s transformation goes deeper than just changing leadership, building new roads, creating new policies or even having consistent power. The real transformation lies in the hearts and minds of every Nigerian, regardless of socio-economic status.
Lee Kuan Yew’s transformation of Singapore from a colonial outpost, poor in natural resources with no real national identity, to one of the most developed nations in Asia was based in large part on his ability to unite the Singaporean people and to engender in them a sense of pride in themselves as the ones to make the difference for their country.
Singapore provides a good example for the country and Nigerians must take the focus off the country’s problems and start talking about and working towards the country’s possibilities. It is time to start looking at Nigeria’s gifts rather than its deficiencies.
We Nigerians can provide a litany of opinions about what’s wrong with the country and what its problems are. Indeed, doing so has become something of a national sport. However, if regurgitating problems led to a solution, Nigeria’s issues would have been solved a long time ago.
Focusing on possibilities is not about re-branding — something which many Nigerians are skeptical about — nor is it about pretending that Nigeria has no issues. It is about looking at what can be done, what works, what is possible and what resources are available right now.
The real wealth of a country lies in its people and people is one resource that Nigeria has in abundance. It is with the people — all people — that Nigeria’s real promise for the future lies. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has often said that the country’s most valuable resource is its people and their work ethic.
Unfortunately, what Nigeria also currently has in abundance is disempowered and disenfranchised people, who are despondent, resigned and cynical about their country.
I assert that the continued focus on problems has led many Nigerians into what psychologist Martin Seligman terms “learned helplessness.” This is a sense of despondency and resignation whereby people come to relate to themselves as victims, locked into a system in which they are unable to make any difference or have any control.
In this state of mind, the situation becomes self-fulfilling — apathetic citizens do not take the actions needed to make a difference which allows those who do not have the country’s best interests at heart to continue doing business as usual, thereby reinforcing the powerlessness felt by the average person.
Looking at possibilities awakens people to the opportunities, resources and openings for action which can be hidden from view when we are feeling helpless. It awakens people to the knowledge that each of us must accept personal responsibility for having our communities work.
More than anything, it is about realizing and awakening the power of the human spirit as the key catalyst for major social transformation.
Empowered people take empowered actions. Focusing on problems has never been proven to empower anybody. It’s now time for all of us Nigerians to commit to looking at what is possible for Nigerians, to envision her future and to commit to working towards that.
Nigeria’s possibilities, not her problems, her strengths and not her weaknesses are where the key to a new future lie.