Artwork: Ballet Dancer, 1950. Oil on canvas. Hall Collection. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro.
Alice Neel’s New York is disappearing—but it is not yet gone. It lives in the spirit and the souls of those who persevere against all odds. Like the artist herself, the New York she once loved was made up of people who triumphed over tragedy, trauma, and loss. Perhaps her personal struggles imbued her with a profound empathy to those she painted with exquisite sensitivity and feeling, capturing the depths of their humanity.
This month, Alice Neel, Uptown (David Zwirner Books/Victoria Miro), a new book authored by Pulitzer Prize winning critic Hilton Als, looks at the portraits the artist made while living in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side throughout the twentieth century. The book is published in conjunction with an exhibition of the work opening at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, on May 18 after debuting earlier this year to critical acclaim at David Zwirner in New York.
For Alice Neel, Uptown, Als masterfully curates a selection of works that speak to and of the collective human experience that was at the very heart of life in Old York. Her paintings speak joy and pain, love and loss, of the experiences and emotions that shape our lives from childhood to old age. The paintings selected are a portrait not only of a people, but also of a place and time that is continuously fighting the systemic effects of marginalization—much like the artist herself.
For Neel, the individual is sacrosanct. In and of themselves, they are a complete, albeit on-going, story unfolding on the world stage and a vessel for the most beautiful, complex, and unexpected possibilities. Neel finds the nuance and depth of every soul who sits, be it at a known personage or your neighbor on the block. The book includes well-known figures like playwright, actress, and author Alice Childress; the sociologist Horace R. Cayton, Jr.; the community activist Mercedes Arroyo; and the widely published academic Harold Cruse, as well as those only identified by their race and ethnicity, with special attention given to peoples of Latinx, African-American, Arab, and Asian descent.
Uptown the world is a vast swath of color and hue ranging from golds, orchres, and ambers to rich, lustrous browns. Als has edited the works to showcase the people of New York long before gentrification drove people out of their own neighborhoods. Here we see the glory of Old York, of the everyday people who gave the city life. Neel casts her subjects as great icons of art history be it the reclining nude or the Madonna and child—always taking care to present them with honor and dignity.
In one of the beautiful entries accompanying the works, Als discovered the words of Neel in various interviews and books that perfectly surmise her philosophy: “I did the best I could / I could not seem to speak / But there was so much to see.”
Indeed, her paintings are momentary respites from the relentlessness of life, of the stress and the strain that we face in order to survive. But it is in these moments of stillness that we draw a breath, able to quietly compose our very best selves. That best is neither grand nor grandiose, but a simple place of peace that emanates from each work, allowing us to share in the joys of life long after the moment is gone.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.