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Uptown Girl / Uptown Boy

How a new exhibition of Alice Neel's paintings, curated by Hilton Als, reflexively explores relationships and identity.

“Do you agree that your name and Alice Neel’s sound good together?” It was an innocent question, asked at the end of the press preview of Alice Neel, Uptown at David Zwirner Gallery in New York. An attendee asked the question of Hilton Als, theater critic for the New Yorker and the show’s curator. Als chuckled. He had never thought of that, he said, though he did recall how seductive Neel’s voice sounded when she spoke. But the two names have a certain cadence in common; they sit together very picturesquely. And at this show, they seemed to blend into one another, resonant of Als’s recent work and how he insinuates himself into the lives of others.

Neel was born in Pennsylvania at the very beginning of the 20th century. She spent her working life in uptown Manhattan, on 108th Street, and she died in that city in 1984. For much of her career Neel worked around the duties of motherhood, painting the people in her neighborhood and the people she knew and found interesting. Her success in later years (she exhibited widely from the 1960s onwards, with a 1974 Whitney retrospective introducing her to the big leagues) has perhaps been eclipsed by her posthumous celebrity.

All but one of the paintings in Alice Neel, Uptown are portraits. Specifically, the show brings together Neel’s portraits of people of color. She had no fear of asymmetry. With bold strokes, and often using color to outline features, Neel embraced and enhanced the crookedness in her subjects’ faces. In one of her more famous group portraits, Black Spanish-American Family (1951), the unnamed mother is equanimous and tired. But her girls’ eyes are bright and tingling, wonky and uneven with the alertness of the very young.

Perhaps it’s Neel’s habit of painting chic young things that has made her a literati favorite. There are famous people in this show. Here is writer and performer Alice Childress, looking out of a window with a gaze both steely and wistful. Neel’s portrait of Harold Cruse, author of The Crisis of the Black Intellectual, is among the exhibition’s best. Cruse’s right hand is closed but facing upward, tucked under the left elbow that holds a pensive hand to his face. His body is geometry, his face unmeasurable.

The nonfamous people are often labeled starkly—Black Man, or An Arab. While Neel certainly painted many people of color with sensitivity and care, her titles make her subjects feel like specimens, sometimes. But it is Als’s conviction that Neel sought connection with the inner being of each of her subjects: That her depictions are done with love.

This is reminiscent of Als’s own approach to his subjects. In White Girls, his critically acclaimed collection of essays from 2013, he examines his identity as a gay black man through the white women who have caused him pain. “I felt myself in her,” Als writes of a woman he calls Mrs. Vreeland, evoking the Harper’s Bazaar legend, and also Marie, the white girl he fell in love with in high school (she was actually part Puerto Rican). Marie was the person that Als felt a real kinship with—his first “we” as he calls it—and he ends that memory with a chilling question: “Did I love her or want to be her? Is there a difference?”

One leaves White Girls with a firm idea of who Hilton Als wants, but ultimately struggles, to be. Four years later, with the publication of the companion text to the Neel show, Als returns to what he started in White Girls, this time literally assuming the role of a white girl: Alice Neel. The book, also called Alice Neel, Uptown, is also a collection of essays. The introduction connects Neel and Als by way of personal narrative. Als begins by recalling trips into Manhattan with his father. He is led to the home of Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girls, Brownstones and his mother’s favorite author. His disappointment—Marshall lives in derelict conditions in Harlem—initiates an interrogation of art and reality: “Was this art? The real voice behind the door? Was this what I had to make art out of—a reality I didn’t want to know?”

Als uses this moment to illustrate why he began writing essays, a genre, he says, that facilitates the inclusion of many stories, not just a single one. He writes, “The essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but about the collective—all the voices that made your ‘I’.” This is his connection to Neel. She too is a kind of essayist, a figure of inclusion. To Als, Neel and her portraits of her East Harlem neighbors are a prime example of the “unsentimental wonder” with which the artist must meet the world. He ends on a bittersweet note: His father would have been the perfect subject for Neel, he writes. Perhaps she would have even done more justice to him than Als.

What the introduction does for the rest of the monograph is establish Als and Neel as companions, soulmates separated by time. While Als’s commentary meditates on a range of Neel’s portraits, there are a few—Georgie Arce, Benjamin, and Stephen Shepard—whose accompanying essays speak directly to Als’s development since White Girls. Georgie Arce was a kid from the neighborhood who later became a con artist. “Alice Neel was attracted to the drama of being,” Als writes, “so how could she resist what Georgie was willing to give?” Als is also attracted to the drama of being. It was part of his attraction to a straight black man in White Girls who he calls Sir or Lady—SL for short—and Mrs. Vreeland. Both had an air about them, a way of living life that Als felt was closed to him.

The kinship between Als and Neel becomes overt in Benjamin, with Als adopting the “I” of the painter: “My paintings are a way, sometimes, of trying to understand how we get into another person, and why, and why it’s beautiful, hard, exhausting, enriching. People—that’s all we have, one another and sometimes that’s unbearable, and sometimes all we crave.” The line between Als and Neel disappears. Not only because Als adopts her viewpoint, but because the language is not far from what Neel would have used herself. In an interview with Johnny Carson, Neel describes the people she paints as those who have had particularly difficult lives. “So many of us are damaged, aren’t we?” she says. This is a question that Als might have asked in White Girls. It employs a similar rhetorical strategy and tugs at familiar themes. It pokes at a truth at once simple and complicated.

All of Neel’s subjects’ hands—when visible—are awkward and expressive. She always overemphasizes the upper body: Her people have large heads and short legs. The lower body is often extra-foreshortened, so much so that the lower vertebrae seem to be missing. The subject’s face is therefore the central object in each painting. The eyes are the central objects within the central object. Some of the subjects, like the kids in Three Puerto Rican Girls (1955), have lights in their eyes that put the contemporary viewer in mind of cartoons.

At the press preview, Als spoke about the portrait of the designer Ron Kajiwara. This painting is a good example of many Neel-esque things. He was young and chic and ferociously talented. His body is folded up like a camp bed but glittering with attitude. The face is straight-on and defiant. Kajiwara sits in a Van Gogh wicker chair but, as with those truncated thighs, Neel paints objects in false relationships with each other. The chair looks like it is floating upwards. Kajiwara’s feet do not touch the ground. The hands are bluish and perfect.

There are two portraits of a man named Abdul Rahman in the show. One is famous and the other gives him purple lips. Rahman has perhaps the most uneven features of any sitter painted in this show, but by the same token that makes him seem like the most deeply loved of all.

There is very little in the way of wall text in this show. Oddly, for this reason, one can tell it was curated by a writer. Writers are much less tolerant of bad sentences strewn about a space. Even the individual painting titles are set rather far away from the works on the walls. Meanwhile the gallery’s glass vitrines are filled with books. Not books about Neel exactly, but books that, as Als explained in his talk, pick up on and draw out the political themes he sees in her work. An old biography of Lenin; an academic monograph on mid-century life in Harlem.

The final essay in Alice Neel, Uptown is about the painting Stephen Shephard. “Just look at him, in all his sexy knowingness. Was he gay? I don’t know, but there’s that bomber jacket and those Jheri curls,” Als writes. He then completes the connection between himself and Neel, between his real and imagined lives: “My friend Valda would have loved Stephen Shepard, this painting. We called her Mrs. Vreeland because she had so much style.”

The essay becomes a scene with Hilton Als as a featured character. But whether this character is Als as we know him or Als at his fully realized self is unclear. At one point, Als runs into his former professor. Our narrator writes that the professor could not “take his eyes off Mrs. Vreeland, Hilton’s companion.” Mrs. Vreeland is the object of affection because she is a white girl, a dramatic being, Hilton’s other half.

So, who is Alice Neel to Hilton Als? The exhibition focuses on Neel’s minority subjects, though they were not her only ones. It’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that, in curating this exhibition, Als curated a life for Alice Neel. That her revolutionary quality, her humility, her attraction to minorities, and her love for East Harlem are, at least in part, imagined.

But Als is always meditating upon his personal relationships at the same time as he imagines them: He is a reflexive chronicler, not a diarist. Als interrogates conventional understanding of what it means to love and to relate to someone, and that consciousness fills the big white rooms of David Zwirner. The painting’s labels sit far from each painting on the gallery’s wall, as if reaching out to one another to exchange identities.