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.

Continue reading →

Leave confederate history in the past

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell wants to celebrate confederate history – but it is inextricably linked to slavery

There’s no shortage of events to create uproar in America. A couple of weeks ago it was caused by members of the Tea Party who seemed to forget that this is 2010, not 1965, and took to insulting black and gay congressmen while protesting in Washington. This month it has been Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to cause outrage with his declaration that April is Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia.

As a guest on Rev Al Sharpton’s radio show last week, I listened to caller after caller express their view on commemorating confederate history. Unsurprisingly it is a sore point (to put it mildly) for the many African-Americans whose roots lie in the south. It shouldn’t just be a sore point to African-Americans though – the confederacy was a stain on America’s history. It’s truly a wonder that any American would feel comfortable commemorating something which was the source of so much suffering for others and that created a legacy of deeply entrenched inequality that could be said to be at the root of many of the continued issues that America faces today.

In 1861, just weeks after Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas seceded from the union, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the confederacy delivered a speech which became known as the Cornerstone Speech. In it, he said: “[The] foundations [of the new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Even though McDonnell has now recognised slavery as part of Confederate History Month, the above statement alone should be enough to make him ponder deeply on the merits of commemorating anything from which such assertions came.

States like Virginia only fought so hard for their independence from the union in the civil war because they wished to continue to enslave millions of black people and to maintain the white supremacy that Stephens talked about in the Cornerstorne Speech. Furthermore, not only did confederate states secede from the union in order to protect their interests as slave owners, but their actions were also considered treason and illegal in the eyes of the rest of the union. And all that is the “sacrifice” that is apparently worth commemorating?

A man who called into Rev Sharpton’s show last week said: “What surprises me [about the reinstating of Confederate History Month] is that anyone’s surprised that this is still happening.” His view was that, African-American president or not, in many parts of America there are still people who cling to the notion that America was better in the old days, in the days before black people had the opportunity to do anything, much less become president. It is a shame that these can find allies in people like McDonnell.

While there are clearly progressive, forward-thinking Americans, it has also become clear that there are a number of Americans who are clinging to a very unsavory version of the past. The ugliness that has reared its head from those people since President Obama’s election has also been nothing short of spectacular and nothing short of depressing. It is truly a strange and sorry thing to see.

It is time for all people, Governor McDonnell included, to start looking ahead to the future. The past is gone, and celebrating the olden days in this way is a fruitless exercise which only courts controversy and creates deeper divisions. Politicians who practise divisive tactics like this should not be allowed to remain in office. Society simply has no need for this.

Forget confederate history. It is time for politicians of this kind to be history.