Critics’ Picks

Alice Neel, Self-Portrait Skull, 1958, ink on paper, 11 3/4 x 8 3/4".

New York

Alice Neel

David Zwirner | 537 West 20th Street
537 W 20th Street
February 19–April 18

The moods of this elegant exhibition, which includes loose pastels and watercolors, precise pencil sketches, and frenetic ink drawings, fluctuate like the spikes on an EKG. There are moments of warmth here—a mother and child on the beach—but many of Alice Neel’s subjects are solitary: an old woman with no purse riding a train, a brooding child, a lost-looking man with an empty coffee cup. Even when several figures share a space, they can appear isolated. In Alienation, 1935, Neel lies naked on a bed, lips and eyes firmly shut. A nude lover stands above her, turning away, limbs crossed defensively. Inky shadows threaten to consume the old man lying on the curb in Untitled (Bowery), 1936. Other haggard figures trudge past him, their weariness and despair scrawled and scratched into their features.

Suffering, as W. H. Auden observed, unfolds while “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Neel adroitly pins the pain and quotidian sorrows of her subjects to a heedlessly humming city. In an ink-and-gouache depiction of her dying mother, Neel incorporates other hospital patients receiving visitors and, through the window, a boat going about its business, an urban counterpart to Auden’s “expensive delicate ship” bypassing Pieter Breughel’s drowning Icarus.

Neel strips the world away in other portraits, allowing her sitters to dominate the blank paper. In Ginny, 1975, Neel’s youthful daughter-in-law gazes past us with large gray eyes, a modern-day sibyl in sneakers. In the horrifying Self-Portrait Skull, 1958, Neel paints herself as death’s head with stringy hair and broken teeth. Black ink gushes in grotesque streams from one eye socket. Taken together, the works in this startling show create compelling cycles of life and death, simultaneously universal and profoundly intimate.