New York

Alice Neel

Robert Miller Gallery

Without being doctrinaire, Alice Neel always acted on the principle, insisted upon by some feminist theoreticians, that a woman artist should emphasize the personal. This emphasis in her work derives not so much from an autobiographical subtext as from the work’s persistent emphasis on specific subjects: it is grounded in the concrete, and imbued with the authenticity of things seen in her daily life.

The works in this show, “The Years in Spanish Harlem 1938–1961,” are from a period that followed a suicidal depression in Neel’s life, and, perhaps because of this they demonstrate an uncanny sense of sympathy and directness. Upon near-monochrome grounds made slightly turbulent by expressive brushwork, stand or sit Neel’s neighbors and friends in Spanish Harlem, to which she retreated to escape white American culture. Neel objected to depersonalizing a human subject, using it merely as grist for the artistic mill, treating it simply as one element in a composition. Rather, she tried to remain true to the subjects themselves; her figures clearly represent particular and unique individuals.

Four portraits of the Latino boy Georgie Arce seem to show an incredible amount of affection and openness between the eccentric white woman and her young friend met in the street. (The knife he holds in one picture sadly foreshadows his manslaughter conviction many years later.) Looking dapper in a blue suit and tie, with a bright edge of white collar, Rudolph Christian gesticulates with his left hand as he makes a point, glancing directly at the listener/viewer. Two little Puerto Rican girls, Antonia and Carmen Encarnacion, gaze from the depths of a thickly painted surface with apparently prophetic anxiety about the sad challenges of the life they are facing.

These works are moving in the humanity they bring to the practice of easel painting, which so often has had its head in the clouds. The hints of the primitive that Neel allowed to remain in her work—an occasional asymmetry in the eyes, a perspectival incommensurability in the rendering of furniture—do not clash with her mastery of the fretful surface and its wide-ranging set of associations, from Edouard Manet to Egon Schiele and beyond. Rather, they seem to give added authenticity and vulnerability to work that is already down to earth and deeply rooted in feeling.

Thomas McEvilley