Alice Neel’s subjects stare calmly out from the canvas. They’re in the middle of a conversation or they’re in the middle of just being themselves—whatever it is, Neel’s late paintings, on exhibit now at the David Zwirner gallery, are richly intimate. Even the still lives here show signs of an inner life, and the people, awkward smiles and all, are warm and real.
I spent a long time looking at “Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian,” a portrait of a couple, one of the first pieces in the exhibit. The subjects are on record as grumbling about Neel’s manners—apparently she hardly said a word to them over the long posing sessions. Still, they almost glow on the canvas. Their skin is blotchy, their bodies are lumpy and their clothes are frumpy, but they look patient and loving and close. Their bodies, side by side, flow into each other. Their wrinkles and tousled hair hint at a private world from which they look out at us.
“Sherry Speeth” is a totally different character. Nervous and taut, he sits on the edge of his chair, bursting with energy. Neel takes the best of him, making a little man in a little chair into a dynamo. Her colors do a lot of the work here; red accents at his ears and hands mark him for action. And, as so often, Neel uses gentle caricature—elongated fingers, sharp knees, oversized glasses—as shorthand to express personality.
“Kevin and Andy,” a father-and-baby portrait, may be one of the oddest pieces in this show. Kevin and Andy look incredibly awkward and unfinished. The baby’s teeth are ludicrous, taking over half his face; his father’s arm, holding him, hangs out over empty space, and the chair they sit in is just a few dark lines on the plain white canvas. But then, these two people are unmistakably happy—and isn’t this what having a baby does, makes the whole world look unfinished and new?
Neel’s still lifes also bristle with personality, especially “Roses.” The flowers’ strong, sinewy stems, their bright simple faces and their tangle of green leaves are all full of life. They sit in a lopsided vase on a messy, misshapen table. Everything in the painting is flat; it’s the awkwardness, the loose lines, that gives it all a little dimension. The same could be said for all the rest of Neel’s paintings.
Alice Neel: Late Portraits and Still Lifes
Through June 23, David Zwirner, 533 W. 19th St., 212-727-2070, davidzwirner.com.
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