David Zwirner has two concurrent exhibitions of Alice Neel’s work, “Alice Neel: Selected Works” at the Chelsea branch, and “Alice Neel: Nudes of the 1930s” uptown at Zwirner & Wirth. According to Zwirner, who now represents her estate with a couple other galleries, Neel (1900-1984) is one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century. “As the American avant-garde of the 1940s and 50s renounced figuration, Neel reaffirmed her signature approach to the human body. Working from life and memory, Neel created daringly honest portraits of her family and friends, downtrodden neighbors and public figures, art-world colleagues and poets, lovers and strangers. Her choice of subjects was a reflection of her personal life and an expression of the political and social milieu in which she lived, rather than an intentional program. Through her choice of subjects, her work was engaged with issues related to gender and racial inequality, family dynamics, labor struggles, and violence. At the same time, her reexamination of the human body paralleled the cultural upheaval of the sexual revolution and women’s movement: her work challenged the Western artistic tradition that regarded a woman’s proper place in the arts as sitter or muse. Calling herself a ‘collector of souls,’ Neel is acclaimed for not only capturing the truth of the individual, but also reflecting the era in which she lived.”
In a superficial, belittling 2005 Washington Post review of “Alice Neel’s Women” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Blake Gopnik called Neel’s style interesting, even idiosyncratic, but built on other people’s innovations. “If influential originality was what she was after, she must have known these first paintings weren’t going to get her there. Much more important, by painting women in the styles of an esoteric modern avant-garde, she was committing her sitters and their experience to a marginal position. By claiming the difficulties of female life as a subject for the vanguard, she was also keeping it on the sidelines — just where it had always been consigned by mainstream artistic culture.” Read more.
In “Alice Neel as a Great Abstract Painter,” Mira Schor insightfully considers Neel’s work in light of feminist theory, and calls Neel’s paint handling both muscular and inventive. The full article, which is well worth reading, can be downloaded here.