I wanted to be a woman but not in the way that a world obsessed with power

portrait – of Nochlin with her daughter Daisy – hangs at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle. The status of Neel, who was once regarded as an outlier of modern artwork, has improved in the past decade. Her career is now viewed with a high degree of critical consensus, nearly 40 years after she died.

Alice Neel, age 29. Alice Neel Estate, Author supplied (no re-use).

A number of people have celebrated Neel’s greatness. Still, the common theme is her unyielding and empathetic scrutiny of family members, neighbors, and friends in a community that was radically diverse. Neel was a rare and undervalued artist who paid attention to the sensual, sentient human subject, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

A male art world

In a large, open room called Human Creatures, the Nochlins form part of an inclusive neighborhood, where aNeel’s unique way of seeing brings together artists, activists, and New Yorkers of all walks of life. The sitters are characterized by slightly exaggerated features, bendy limbs, and large, steady eyes. They are arranged in tight, sparse arrangements in vibrant, almost shocking colors. The people depicted in these paintings, whether they are clothed or not, have been rendered with such clarity, intelligence, and verve that the title “great artist” seems appropriate.

Rita and Hubert 1954. (c) The estate of Alice Neel. Author provided.

Nochlin, however, exposed the category “great artist” to be a trap. Was Neel a great woman artist or merely a great artist? Neel asserted that:

I’ve always wanted to be a woman painter, not the way that a world obsessed with power and oppression thought women should.

Neel was a woman, and her gender played a major role in both her art and politics. However, she resented cliches that were prevalent about women artists. The mythologies surrounding Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo are based on eroticized sensuality or emotional intensity. The fact that they are now part of the canon reveals a rigged system because key terms to define women have been reduced. Black artists are no different, but Black female artists are even more so, as they are far removed from the dominant narrative of white male artists.

Carmen and Judy (1972). (c) The estate of Alice Neel. Author provided.

Neel was marginalized and unfashionable in her lifetime as a politically radical figurative woman artist. This was especially true during the postwar heyday of Abstract Expressionism, which was largely a man’s domain. This “action painting”, which involves the spontaneous splashing, throwing, or smearing of paint on a canvas, reinforced the idea that the masculine epic depicting intense soul-searching was a male domain.

Jackson Pollock, his contemporaries, and most of the subsequent accounts, exhibits, and collections became the usual suspects. The story of modern art grafted on these personalities and styles to the old, which otherwise remained intact.

Art without Men

The Whitechapel Art Gallery, not far from the Neel exhibition, is hosting Action, gesture, paint: Women Artists & Global Abstraction 1940-1970, a long overdue reframe of the classic narrative about abstract expressionism.

It is not just about the women who are often forgotten in abstract art, but it also goes beyond Europe and the US. It was both humbling and revealing for me as an art historian trained by feminist pioneers to see so many amazing works by mostly unknown artists.

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