Among the arresting, unforgettable moments in this amazing survey are two portraits of artists in a state of decommitment. In one, the first painting we see, Alice Neel paints herself, 80 years old, naked, sitting on a striped chair that we see repeatedly in her late period (she did it in 1980, and would get she died four years later). She holds a paintbrush in one hand, a rag in the other, but omits the canvas itself, perhaps to reveal her insanity more, to force us to look harder. When we meet her eye, we realize that she is in a conversational mood: her eyebrows are furrowed. “Well, what do you make of this?” she seems to ask.
Then there is a portrait of Andy Warhol, from ten years earlier. This is not the famous Andy, the glitzy King of Pop who fed all of New York. Andy is injured, a huge scar across his torso, a corset over his waist, a man who has barely kept himself together after the shot that almost killed him a few years before.
Unlike the self-portrait, there is no wit here. Warhol’s face is beautifully outlined in pink, peach and green, with Neel’s trademark blue lines defining his contours. And it’s almost beautiful. When Neel died in 1984, she asked the great photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to photograph her as if she were taking her last breath. This is true of Neel’s vision of Warhol: it is like a death mask. I have seen both pictures before, but they still shock and move me as much as ever.
This is the second major London exhibition of Neel’s work, following the Whitechapel 13 years ago. That was her first big show in Europe. This one has come from the Pompidou in Paris; Neel’s star only rose in the intervening years. She achieved fame during her lifetime in the US – a major show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; an enthusiastic appearance on Johnny Carson’s talk show. But that was hard won.
She began in earnest as a painter in Cuba with her husband Carlos Enríquez, creating intense, fluid portraits of him and the people she met in Havana. Soon their relationship ended in tragedy: a daughter died of diphtheria and Enríquez took another to live with his family in Havana. After a period of mental illness, Neel recovered and spent time in bohemian Greenwich Village, portraying eccentric Village Joe Gould (painting with five pints) and making tender watercolors of herself with her lover John Rothschild – one with her peeing in the loo. , burn in the sink.
She also captured the liberal atmosphere of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, with its labor disputes and protests against racial injustice and fascism, and produced intense portraits of ordinary people around her in Spanish Harlem, as well as the artistic community. and a communist – she. she was investigated by the FBI for her own communist leanings, although she described herself as an anarchic humanist.
However, the Anarchic humanist figure was not compatible with the world of art, especially in the years after the war, when Abstract Irisism was at the forefront. Add to that misogynist fundamentalism and it is perhaps not surprising that Neel did not achieve proper recognition until the 1960s. There’s a great moment in the show when you go to the more air-conditioned galleries downstairs from the more compressed rooms upstairs, and you feel a new sense of confidence.
Late Neel is unrelentingly impressive: expanses of canvas left bare with chunks of the figures drawn in and others immaculately detailed. In each painting, however, there is an anchor that draws you in, whether in the pose, the details of the costume, or Neel’s treatment of the hands which is fascinating. Always, you feel a communion between the artist and the dresser, as Neel tries to paint “what the world has done to them and their loyalty”.
Apparently, the process could be painful for Neel. She was “completely myself”, she said, when she painted and tried to tell her truth with the brush, even seeing it as a form of therapy. It is almost as if in every painting, she is laid as bare as she is in the self-portrait.
But she was years ahead of her time. There is nothing remote about these pictures, twenty or thirty years after they were made: their struggle and subject matter remain the same. Unlike so many of her contemporaries and even her followers, the community we see in her work is extremely diverse in terms of race, class and sexuality. They still talk to us. No wonder contemporary painters can’t get enough of her. That humanism, anarchic or otherwise, is extremely abundant.
Barbican Art Gallery, 16 February to 21 May; barbican.org.uk