The Arts Club of Chicago is pleased to announce the opening of the Alice Neel Drawings exhibition. With close to 100 portraits spanning six decades, this marks the first exhibition of Neel’s works on paper and her first show in Chicago since her exhibition at Artemesia in 1987.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1900, Alice Neel studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art & Design). She began exhibiting in Cuba in 1926, where she lived for two years with her first husband, and her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally ever since. Neel lived and worked in New York until her death in 1984.
Although Alice Neel’s complete oeuvre includes landscape and still life as her subject matter, it is her interest in portraiture that is the primary substance of her career. Not merely studies for her paintings, Neel’s drawings form their own complete and comprehensive body of work. For the duration of her lifetime, Neel documented the inhabitants of her milieu. Whether a resident in her local Spanish Harlem, an art world celebrity, or a current lover, Neel treats her subjects with a uniform eye- simultaneously unrelenting and empathetic.
Neel believed that the entirety of individuals life experiences is present in their body carriage, gestures, language, and this is what she strove to portray. Crafted from sittings in conjunction with her memory of her subject, translating this wealth of living experience into a single image was her mastery. Never a replication of an individual’s physical appearance, Neel manages to infuse a simple line with the intangible characteristics that make each person unique. Often vulnerable and verging on grotesque, the portraits remain surprisingly free of judgement, and however distorted, they are never exploitative; Neel’s subjects always maintain their integrity. Her portraits seem painted from the first person, brutally honest and arrestingly personal. In a Neel drawing, it is never a portrait of a person as object, but instead a portrait of a personality as the subject. She manages to transcend traditional one-to-one relationship of artist and subject to present the viewer with an image crafted with piercing accuracy and insight to the entirety of her subject’s life history. Neel’s experience of knowing a person while making a portrait is her art, and ultimately this is what the viewer is left with.
Alice Neel’s drawings and paintings are in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, among others.
An exhibition catalogue is available with an essay by Courtney Donnell, formerly of the 20th Century Painting and Sculpture Department at The Art Institute of Chicago.