Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle at The Barbican

20.03.2023
Maggie Scaife

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle at The Barbican

20.03.2023
Maggie Scaife

‘Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle’ at The Barbican, is the largest UK exhibition to date of American painter Alice Neel (1900–1984).

Based predominantly in New York, Neel painted figuratively during a period in which it was deeply unfashionable. She persisted with her distinctive, expressionistic style, even though it meant that she lacked financial comfort, let alone critical recognition.

Crowned the ‘court painter of the underground,’ Neel portrayed individuals who were not typically the subjects of painters at the time – pregnant women, Black intellectuals, labour leaders, neighbourhood children and queer couples. Her selection of sitters was a retaliation against their exclusionary histories.

This retrospective presents Neel as forever evolving over her 60-year career. The exhibition allows the viewer to walk themselves through decades of progress and her development of style provides ample satisfaction. Her vibrant portraits are shown alongside archival material, including photography, letters and film.

Setting a poignant scene, the exhibition begins with her 80-year-old self-portrait. Harnessing a continually radical take on nudity, Neel presents an acute awareness of ageism and sexism in mass media and instead draws the observer’s attention to the beauty of wrinkles, folds, flaps, and all.

Neel mastered a talent for capturing community, driven by her will to do people justice. Each painting radiates a sense of the humanity and dignity she found in each of her subjects. Her transparent, truth-telling nature shines through every canvas.

Neel’s attitude could be labelled as punk, as she responded so viscerally to changes in the political landscape. Her depictions of realities at the time were often harsh, and she never shied away from the unknown, unlike some of her contemporaries.

Insightful quotes dotted across the Barbican’s walls are a window into her brain. ‘One of the reasons I painted was to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle… the vitality is taken out of real living.’

The exhibition’s focus on the therapeutic and healing qualities of art is evident. Neel had a clear understanding of how her mental state had a direct impact on the work that she produced over certain periods of time.

I found the library at the end of the circuit provided a wise conclusion, acting as an acknowledgement that there is plenty the curators couldn’t squeeze into the parameters of the space. You can perch on an Artek Stool 60 and discover various works of literature to immerse yourself further into Neel’s world.

‘Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle’. Until Sunday the 21st of May.