I made these quick studies from two of the paintings by Alice Neel that are currently on display at David Zwirner’s gallery in Chelsea. Neel is one of my all-time favorite painters; it would be hard for me to imagine American art of the last 50 years without her. She was a visiting artist at the University of Iowa just a couple of years before she passed away; when I was a student there in the late 80’s, people were still talking about her as if the High Priestess of Painting had been there, and rightly so. She is certainly one of the great modern masters of portraiture, along with Francis Bacon, Picasso and Lucian Freud.
Neel is one of the few artists to invent a figurative language that manages to have resonance in the modern world. But she paid a price, just like nearly anybody else who cared about drawing and painting the figure in the last half of the twentieth century: after Abstract Expressionism became the lingua franca of modernism, Neel and others who took portrait painting seriously spent much of their careers in relative isolation from the rest of the “art world.” The recognition that she received towards the end of her life was well-deserved, if more than a bit late.
If you go to the exhibit, plan to take some time to sit and watch the video documentary that is showing there as well; it was produced by her son, Andrew Neel and has some interesting footage of Alice and others who knew her, and includes several engaging interviews. This is a museum-quality exhibit and well worth the time. This week is the last chance to see it in person; the show ends on the 20th. Here’s a link to David Zwirner’s gallery for more information: www.davidzwirner.com