Alice Neel described herself as "a collector of souls", what was she was trying to achieve, and where was she trying to arrive as a painter in light of that statement?
It shifts slightly at different points in her career. At the Barbican, our exhibition shows work from the 1920s, when she’s spending time in Havana, through to the mid-1980s when she’s a grande dame of the New York art world. So over that period you see slightly different emphases in the painting.
But in my mind, there are two things that she’s always trying to get at: the first is, how do you capture the essence of a person? And she uses the word "soul" – the pithy truth of who a person is and what they are when they set aside the role they perform for society. And the second thing is: what is the society that shaped them at the moment in time at which we encounter them? She called that "the swirl of the era". I think when you look at a painting of someone like Gerard Malanga you really get a sense of both, because you get a feeling of him as a character who is incredibly louche and has certain ideas of himself, but there is also the sense of shifting ideas around masculinity in that period in the US in the sixties and early seventies. In a way, a person is always both; their own unique entity, but shaped by the forces that they’re born into.
What was her process like when she invited people to sit for her?
There is an extraordinary painting of a man called James Hunter that she made in 1965. He was then drafted into the Vietnam War so she had no opportunity to paint him again and decided in this incredibly bold, political gesture, to leave the rest of the canvas unpainted, just these sketched in lines. It was a statement about the unknown future of so many men – and especially young Black men – at that point in America in ’65 who were being sent off to war. On the other end of the spectrum, you have John Perreault who sat 17 times for that painting.
In the same way that we can't get to know a human over a single cup of tea, we need time to build that richer relationship. Someone like Georgie Arce sits for her on a whole number of occasions, and because human lives are not linear he looks younger and older in ways that don’t always correlate with his actual age. We all progress and regress at different stages, and Neel was very alive to that.
How did she choose her subject matter?
Neel was really fuelled by this amazing spirit of curiosity. And I think of her as one of life’s great people watchers. She understood just how extraordinary people can be and the extraordinary things that they’ve gone through.
She said of her sitters, "I wanted to paint what the world had done to them and their retaliation". She had a sense of life as a battleground, and was so conscious of the hustle that existence could require. It’s worth remembering that she had lived through the Great Depression. She bore witness to extraordinary poverty and experienced economic precarity first hand, raising her two boys on government welfare. She painted people who managed to live, despite the odds, with flair, or with charisma.
The people who, regardless of their circumstances, managed to make a charmed existence for themselves. Hilton Als has this lovely line where he talks about a "pouring in of energy from both sides", which is almost a definition of empathy – she’s clearly an extraordinary empath. There is the sense that there is a collaborative energy that she fosters in the studio space. This is not just her making a portrait of another person, there’s a degree of shared agency in terms of what they make together. Something I was very sensitive to early on was the question: "is this extractive? What are the politics at play in terms of the person who comes to sit for her, and then her decision to paint them?"
"Neel was fuelled by this amazing spirit of curiosity... I think of her as one of life’s great people watchers. She understood just how extraordinary people can be."
There are many important women artists being re-examined and re-visited in large-scale museum shows over the past few years – Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Maggie Hambling to name a few. Why now?
There are really important examples of women artists who languished in the shadows until the late 60s and early 70s, and Neel is not one of them. She was exhibiting in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, albeit not really having any commercial success or much critical success. But she was still very active. So our exhibition is less a re-examination than an opportunity for audiences based here in the UK to have an opportunity to experience her incredible work. For all the recent attention internationally, especially with the Met’s exhibition in 2021, it’s worth remembering that Neel never had an exhibition in Europe in her lifetime and this is only the second institutional show in London.
When did success start to happen for her?
It’s important to think about the commercial aspect of her practice because I always think it’s worth taking a moment to imagine what it feels like to paint pictures every day without having the reward of commercial success. Year on year, they line the corridor, and it gets busier and busier and the shelves fuller and fuller and yet, you keep on painting. Because there is this kind of determination and faith within that at some point you will be thanked for that perseverance.
"I wanted to paint what the world had done to them and their retaliation"
When does this begin to shift?
The first piece of critical attention she gets is Hubert Crehan for Art News in 1962. Just imagine someone who’s 62 years old having got that far before they had that moment of recognition? And when she does get this attention in the 60s and 70s it’s often quite backhanded. The great Metropolitan Museum curator, Henry Geldzahler did a show in the early 80s about the return of figurative painting, and he didn’t put Neel’s work into it. She bumped into him in the street and said: "why didn’t you put my work in the show?" And he replied: "oh, so now you want to get professional?"
There was this idea that she was a kind of Sunday painter, and that what she was doing was in some way quaint. There was a simmering, underlying lack of faith in a woman artist’s capacity to make work that is truly of art historical significance. It meant that many of the most important taste makers of that period struggled to see what her rightful place was. And you could say that was true of figurative painting more broadly; there’s a whole number of interesting figurative painters from that period who were also being written off, such as Philip Pearlstein and Fairfield Porter, but Neel had the double whammy of being unfashionable and a woman.
Are we now seeing a truly different picture of artistic equality?
In some respects Neel’s reached the heights of recognition now because she’s had a Metropolitan Museum retrospective - what more could an artist wish for?! It’s exciting to be able to offer people a fuller opportunity, at a better moment in history to evaluate who she was. It’s not that I believe work is made irrespective of sex or the social conditioning of gender, nor do I believe her experiences as a woman artist were irrelevant to the artist she became. But I believe it’s not the only lens through which to look at her work.
What are the expectations on you as a curator, and what are the curatorial challenges you face when mounting a show like this?
Well you’re asking people to part with something that is indescribably precious. Perhaps they look at this painting every single day. They live with it, it’s like a family member. And you’re asking them to trust that it's going to be okay and safe in your care. One of the biggest challenges is getting the right work and making sure that you are showing exactly the works that you want to be showing. I often work with artists who are no longer alive, and in these cases I have to be a little bit clairvoyant. How are you meant to commune with the spirit of an artist about what they would have wanted? I will look at every important exhibition they had heavy involvement in and consider the selection – how things were hung, the positioning of works and pairings. I’ll read every single interview that they ever did in their life. I try and travel close to them in order to try and gauge what they would have wanted. And then you’re trying to set that alongside what you anticipate your visitors are going to expect. Given that can be over 100,000 people, it is always going to be a complex calculation!
What do you hope people will take away from this exhibition?
Alice Neel has a kind of cult fanbase, particularly of fellow artists, for whom she’s one of the most significant painters of people in the 20th century. I hope this exhibition allows a wider group of people to understand that hype!
And there’s something about looking at her work on the other side of the pandemic which feels profound because it is so borne out of human connection. You know, she met these people in person, she invited them to come and sit for her. She didn’t have a professional studio space so that meant they were coming into her home. She had a railroad apartment, and sitters had to go through the room where her sons were sleeping in order to get to the living room at the other end. She made these paintings in a very intimate, connected, empathetic space. One of the reasons why they are enormously moving now is because we all, in different ways, experienced the opposite of that in the pandemic: isolation, alienation and enforced separation from the people we love. There is something about her work which is a real balm for the situation we have all collectively been through, this work is a tonic.