Alice Neel’s portrait paintings are immediately distinguishable; solid blue outlines tracing patches of vivid colour, expertly capturing her subjects in their most candid moments that give us insight into their inner lives. Talbot Rice’s current Neel retrospective begins with just these iconic later paintings, mostly of family and friends and assertive in their use of strong, bold strokes and colour. From the slightly averted eyes of the father to the strong interlocking of hands between a couple, Neel’s paintings are more than just visual representations of people: they are unique narratives of complex individuals.
These paintings, when presented in a whitewashed gallery each with a huge section of wall to itself, speak straight to us and overwhelm the viewer with their presence. Indeed, the title of this exhibition comes from Neel’s observation that “I know all the theory of everything but when I paint I don’t think of anything except the subject and me.” It is this intuitive and immersive approach to her subjects that allows her to reveal so much in so little. In The Family (1980), her daughter-in-law Nancy appears weary, while her three children surround her awkwardly, staring wide-eyed at the viewer. Neel, with her unconventional living arrangements and frequent relationships, often questions the concept of family and in this painting seems to depict a woman weighted down by familial commitments and struggling to find independence.
Neel’s uncanny ability to unmask the struggles and torment of her subjects has been said to parallel her at times difficult personal life. For a period of time living in artistic obscurity and trying to raise two children, Neel produced work that revealed with heart-wrenching intimacy her personal difficulties. Self Portrait Skull (1958) is a harrowing representation of herself as a broken skull, drawn after her long-term relationship with Sam Brody formally ended and when she was in and out of psychiatric care while trying to raise her sons. Interestingly, these more personal works, mostly watercolours and drawings, are displayed in a separate gallery from her later, more colourful works. Evening in Riverside Park (1927) shows a desolate, gloomy landscape with the shadow of a woman crouched next to the river, likely to be drawn after she lost her first son to diphtheria.
True to her commitment to representing the narratives of her (often marginalized) subjects, Neel moved to Spanish Harlem in order to gain a personal understanding of her subjects. Spanish Mother and Child (1942) is a poignant study of a mother standing tentatively at her doorway, with a child clinging on in her shadow.
The Subject and Me is an impressively representative collection of Neel’s work, focusing not just on her iconic paintings that reveal her subjects’ inner lives but also her earlier drawings that give us insight into Neel’s own life, and her approach and beliefs as an artist.
At Talbot Rice Gallery, run ended.