Alice Neel: Scientist at David Zwirner Gallery

Back in Berlin, we were exposed to so many different types of art and modes of making (performance, installation, assemblage) that I felt my ability to connect with painting shifting—getting lost—fading. I did not realize this was happening at the time; that in some strange way I was being pseudo-brainwashed. I needed a relief from the apostles of multi-media, multi-modal art so, one afternoon, I traveled to a museum there in Berlin that housed works by Picasso (who had always been one of my favorites).

When I arrived and began inspecting the works, I very quickly felt it—the thrill was gone. I was not moved in the least by these pictures. I left the museum feeling empty. It was not just Picasso who was (what I felt) “"taken” from me, but the other figurative painters who were shown in that museum. I remember clearly thinking, “please don’t have taken Neel and Freud from me”.

Seven months later, there is a Neel exhibit at the David Zwirner gallery in Manhattan. And I am glad to report that the work was, to me, more thrilling than I could have imagined.

I had seen a couple of Neel’s before in person (at the Washington DC portrait gallery) but that was among a crush of people (there to see the Obama portraits) and with a friend at my side. Conditions are different when you go alone to a small gallery and can see and sit with the work in relative quiet.

The Neel pictures at the Zwirner were all nudes but even so, they still captured the Zeitgeist in which they were created (through the sitters’ hairstyles, sometimes their makeup, and mostly through their essence—something I cannot articulate). They are all clearly people living in 1970’s America (there is almost a scent to them, I feel). Alice Neel was not just painting people, I have always felt, but recording time: encapsulating a moment.

I inspected the works so closely, that I folded my hands behind my back to keep the guards at ease. There is a restlessness in the work of Neel; it’s fast and furious. The outlining of the figure is thick and bold in black or light blue (and the light blue outline works—like a scientist, I wonder if she has discovered that our eyes, in certain lights, outline figures we see in light blue). There are swatches paint: thick, thin, small clumps, and the fibers of the canvas here and there pushing through.

I have seen many figurative artists using blue on the body, on the skin, but Neel also uses green and it works as beautifully as blues to bring out the tone of peach skin (there were none of Alice Neel’s portrait of people of color there).

Her work, I noticed in my studying of these Zwirner pieces, are composites of style: It is caricature mixed with photo-realism. A subject’s nose or eyes will be clearly drawn, sketched in its most primitive and flat form but then the subject’s lips are rendered fully including their shape, color, the highlights of white where the lips catch the light.

This, I noticed, was Neel’s magic. Her style. I wondered again if this is how we all see people: is this science? Do we, in our encounters with people and our instinct to register their faces, create a mixture of caricature and photo real recall? Did Neel record what we all do when we look? How we all create a rough, quick caricature of people in our minds so we can recall how they look when they are gone? I think so. I think that is her appeal to the viewer: the science of her work.