It's time we stopped thinking of Alice Neel as a quaint little old lady who painted "primitive" portraits. Her strength was especially evident in the haunting paintings and drawings on view in her recent show "The Years in Spanish Harlem (1938-6l)". It opened on the heels of the Lucian Freud blowout at the Metropolitan Museum, underscoring the similarity in style between the two artists, and one wonders what fame Neel might have achieved had she been male and endowed with a famous psychoanalyst’s last name.
Neel, who was born in 1900 and died at 84, married a Cuban artist, lived turn briefly in Cuba, and admired Goya and Mexican painters Siqueiros, Rivera, and Orozco. She seems to have been much more comfortable painting her in black and Spanish neighbors in Harlem than rendering, as she did later, her fellow artists, relatives, and collectors. In the Harlem pictures, Neel portrays mothers, children, and friends in various stages of contentment, stress, and illness. "T.B.Harlem" is a painting of an emaciated young man lying against hospital pillows. His hand barely touches the bandage on his chest, while his eyes penetrate ours and draw us into his suffering. In one remarkable ink drawing, "Woman Caressing Children," a woman stretches her arms to embrace four children, two white, two black, cradling the head of one with her hand. In this work Neel has managed, with just a few quick strokes, to convey a feeling any mother would recognize: that of being overwhelmed, made to feel hopelessly powerless, by the needs of small children.
Far from being romantic, Neel's representations are unflinchingly honest. Yet the artist was able to play the role of omnipresent reporter without ever relinquishing her emotional attachment to subjects. It's this tangible, often painful, empathy that sets Neel apart from her male counterparts and makes this work so extraordinary.