Upon entering the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, visitors are struck by early 20th century New York artist Alice Neel’s oil rendition of the face of Mercedes Arroyo. An influential community organizer in Spanish Harlem, where Neel lived from 1941 to 1962, Arroyo gazes wistfully to her right, one hand slung on the chair she’s sitting on.
The piece is just one of many of Neel’s works on display at the exhibit, which was curated by Hilton Als, an associate professor in writing at Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts. Als—who has been a theatre critic for the New Yorker since 2002—recently published a piece in the magazine on his connection to Neel’s paintings. A native New Yorker himself, Als’ motivation for curating the exhibit came from the way Neel’s works personally resonated with him, having grown up in the multicultural milieus of Brooklyn and Manhattan during his childhood.
“When I first saw her work—this might have been in the late nineteen-seventies, when I was not yet twenty—I was immediately consumed by the stories she worked so hard to tell: about loneliness, togetherness, and the drama of self-presentation, spurred by the drama of being,” Als wrote in his New Yorker piece. “Neel … believed the world existed on its own terms, and it was our duty—as citizens, as artists—to know as much about it as possible, in order to better live in it and navigate it.”
Neel’s work includes portraits of people that surrounded her life in both Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side. Each of the two adjacent David Zwirner galleries on West 19th Street are dedicated to Neel’s work from one of the two neighborhoods.
The first gallery, dedicated to Neel’s Spanish Harlem period, predominantly features painted portraits that reflect Neel’s profound interest in the diversity of her neighborhood, where she lived from 1941 to 1962. The ethnicities of her subjects range from Puerto Rican to Black Spanish-American, and her subjects even include academic figures like Harold Cruse and Horace R. Cayton, sociologists who specialized in African-American studies.
The adjacent gallery houses a collection of Neel’s Upper West Side work, representing the period of her life spent in Morningside Heights after she moved from Spanish Harlem in 1962. In contrast to the previous gallery, where many of the titles are the names of the subjects, most of the paintings now merely describe the subjects’ race or ethnicity. Some titles include: “Black Man,” “Cyrus, the Gentle Iranian,” and “The Arab.”
The contrast between the two rooms’ collections reflects the change in Neel’s technique as the years progressed. The works in the Upper West Side gallery demonstrate a less rigid painting style, evident in paintings like “Ed Sun,” where she highlights the shadows of the subject’s pants in single, thick brushstrokes, while leaving the rest of the pants blank.
As Als explains in his description of the exhibit for the David Zwirner Gallery’s website, Neel’s work “was not marred by ideological concerns,” and the two galleries clearly reflect this idea. Neel’s consistent painting technique, coupled with the direct gaze that her subjects give the painter, put the subjects on an even playing field.
The way that Als has curated the paintings, hanging them at a visible distance from one another, allows the viewers to engage with each painting intimately, while preventing the paintings’ subjects from appearing threatening with their head-on gazes.
While “Alice Neel, Uptown” is a celebration of Neel’s work, Als ensured that the exhibit also celebrates diversity—something that Als argues other well-known curators of Neel’s works have not done. For example, looking the Neel paintings on display at two of New York’s most prominent art institutions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art—only feature white men, even though Neel’s subjects included, for a great part of her career, women and people of color.
The space between Als’ two galleries showcases a painting of two girls of different races, which Neel simply titled “Two Girls.” Placing this painting in the space that unites the two galleries, each representative of a different—and diverse—New York neighborhood, seems to be Als’ subtle gesture of gratitude to Neel and her devotion to documenting this diversity.