Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle | Barbican

Alice Neel blazed her own trail for decades, painting from her home studio in New York City from the 1930s right up to her death in 1984. She lived unfashionably far uptown, ignoring the comings and goings of Precisionism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop and the rest. Even more unfashionably, she dedicated her artistic life to figuration, sticking doggedly to being an “anarchic humanist”, painting people who interested her.

This impressive retrospective, featuring works from every stage of the long career, also proves that Neel’s artistic motifs got locked in early and never varied. Her proportions are cartoonish, she heavily outlines limbs and fingers - often in blue - and focuses relentlessly on rendering the inner life of her subject. Everything else fell by the wayside: by the end of her career, she could scarcely be bothered even to paint in the backgrounds.

Alice Neel, ‘Andy Warhol’ (1970)

In the documentary footage that closes the Barbican show, the elderly Neel seems delighted with life, arm-in-arm with her two middle-aged sons at a crowded event, and demanding one kiss from each, per cheek. Her later paintings, from the 50s onwards, when Neel found a loyal audience, seem suffused with joy. It must have been so satisfying to ignore fashion, stick to what you believe in, and gain recognition and success, all the same.

By contrast, the saddest portrait in the show (image above) is Neel’s encounter with the ultimate fashion victim, Andy Warhol. Like Neel, he was another trailblazer, but one whose whole artistic point was to change direction, constantly, exhaustingly. After being almost fatally shot in 1968, then stitched up and bound into a girdle, Warhol exposed himself to the two greatest portraitists he knew, photographer Richard Avedon, and Neel.

According to Blake Gopnik’s recent Warhol biography, he asked her for the portrait rather than the other way round, saying to her, “Why don’t you paint me with my scars?”. In the painting, he seems to regret asking, heels together, shoulders slumped, eyes closed. His blocky wig perches on his head. This penitential pose emphasises the droopy flab of his chest, his livid scars. His nipples - the Barbican exhibition proves, abundantly, that Neel really loved to paint nipples - are pendulous, downcast.

The background is barely sketched in and deliberately distorted. Warhol’s seat is just an outline. He’s caught in a sky-blue aura. Neel paints him slightly from above - a common trope in her work - meaning her so-much-more-famous, so-much-more-fashionable peer has to look up to her. At the centre of the canvas, Warhol’s hands are linked in a gesture of prayer - unfilled, just outlined in blue. It’s a portrait of a suffering saint.

Encounters between two great artists can’t often have produced a work of such sensitivity and empathy. It’s a highlight of a generally great show.

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is at Barbican Art Gallery (London). 16 February - 21 May 2023