I can study all day Alice Neel’s brushwork and modeling of flesh and features, how she gestures at her subjects’ surroundings with casual precision. Her “Carmen and Judy” has a frank, womanly exactness and searing intimacy that The New Yorker’s pages show, and Hilton Als’ words ponder, with greater authority than I command here:
These great, almost unbearable late works bear witness to a bravura without a trace of self-consciousness. You can see it in “Carmen and Judy” (1972), a portrait of Neel’s cleaning lady nursing her disabled child. The curators point out that it was unusual for a woman of color to expose her body to the artist in this way, and I can vouch for that. Privacy is one of the few defenses there is against poverty and racism. But Carmen was no doubt able to reveal herself to Neel because she knew that Neel would see what she needed to see: Carmen’s trust, Judy’s dependence, all those years of living in a difference that was not difference to the artist, who had her own years of loss, of children’s love, of trying to render this and so much more in works that would continue to live, despite the darkness of her obscurity and then the light of her fame. Looking at Carmen look at Neel, and thus at us, is like staring straight at the sun. We can’t do it, but we try anyway.
One of her early influences was the work of Robert Henri, a founder of the Ashcan School—a movement that challenged the bourgeois prettiness of the work of the American Impressionists. The Ashcan School focussed on what the Impressionists left out—poverty, dereliction, ugliness. Neel’s developing realism went further. She was not Ashcan but emotional gutbucket, a miner of difficult truths.
(Hilton Als, “Alice Neel’s Portraits of Difference,” thenewyorker.com, April 26 & May 3, 2021 Issue)
(c) 2021 JMN