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Friends and Strangers

Portraits by Alice Neel and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

By Margie MacKinnon

From Restoration Conversations Magazine, Issue 3, Spring/Summer 2023

Installation shot from ‘Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle’

at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. Ph. Eva Herzog

Two London exhibitions, one just ended, the other ongoing, illustrate the continuing allure of portrait painting in Western art and its possibilities for radical re-invention. Tate Britain recently hosted Fly in League with the Night, a show of some 80 paintings and works on paper created by London-born artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. At the Barbican, works from the American painter Alice Neel’s 60-year career are currently on display under the title Hot off the Griddle.

In their own way, each of these artists brought, or brings, a revolutionary approach to portrait painting. Neel explained that one of her reasons for painting “was to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle”. She welcomed sitters into her home, chatted away to them, and invited them to share their own stories. She painted figuratively when the prevailing trend favoured Abstract Expressionism. While the AbEx artists created works that reflected their reactions to a period of tumultuous change, Neel hid her own struggles behind a smile and brought out the feelings of her subjects. “I paint to try to reveal the tragedy and joy of life,” she said.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are not portraiture in the traditional sense. The subjects are not real people, but creations of the artist’s imagination, based on a combination of memory, family snapshots, images from magazines collected in scrapbooks and details of paintings. A writer, as well as an artist, Yiadom-Boakye says, “I write about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about …”. These fictional, nameless strangers seem every bit as full of humanity as Neel’s living, breathing sitters.

Alice Neel

Born at the turn of the last century, Alice Neel grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Her parents were not artists and she had little exposure to culture, but, somehow, she knew from a young age that she would become an artist. In 1921, she began her art studies at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (also known, because of its conservative reputation, as the ‘Philadelphia School for Designing Women’). She met Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez Gomez at a summer art course in 1924, and they married the following year. Their first child, a daughter named Santillana, tragically died just before her first birthday. By then the couple had moved to New York where Neel soon had a second daughter, Isabetta. Husband and wife continued to paint but struggled to support themselves, moving to ever cheaper accommodation. In May of 1930, Gomez took Isabetta with him to Havana, telling Neel he would send money back to enable her to join them. The money never materialised, and Neel only saw her daughter a handful of times after that.

This trauma seems to have informed much of Neel’s work and underscores the difficulty experienced by so many female painters of combining life as an artist with motherhood. Following the stock market crash and during the period of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, life was punishingly hard. Countless artists, including Neel, were saved from starvation by the government-sponsored Federal Art Project which paid unemployed artists a small salary in exchange for producing works of art to decorate public buildings. The deprivation of these times produced in Neel a “desire to bear witness to the hardships of life as experienced by most Americans” in that decade. Neel’s salary from the Art Project allowed her to secure an apartment which she also used as studio space. At the same time, she joined the Communist Party, an event that would later lead the FBI to open a file on her and even show up at her door to investigate her, having identified Neel as a ‘romantic, Bohemian type Communist’. Characteristically, she was sanguine about the encounter and asked if the agents would be interested in sitting for a painting. (They declined.)

Installation shot from ‘Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle’

at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. Ph. Eva Herzog

In the 1940’s, when up-and-coming artists such as Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan were moving downtown to convert lofts into studios and creating pioneering works of Abstract Expressionism, Neel moved north to Spanish Harlem and persisted with figurative painting, largely dismissed as an artist out of step with the times. But it was there that she met the subjects for her works, however unfashionable they may have been. She was, she said, “not against abstraction, but against saying that Man himself has no importance.”

Neel’s T.B. Harlem (1940) is a comment on the epidemic of TB that had broken out in overcrowded areas of New York. It depicts an unnamed young man who is recovering in a tuberculosis hospital. Before effective antibiotics were widely available, TB treatment was brutal. The bandage on the left of the man’s chest is from a thoracoplasty, a surgical procedure which involved removing several ribs and collapsing the affected lung. The painting is simple, with a muted colour palette, making the blood seeping out from under the bandage more evident. The plain background draws the viewer towards the man’s face, which registers a resigned stoicism. He is just one man among many suffering a similar fate.

The loss of her mother, in 1954 at the age of 86, sent Neel into a deep depression that lasted over the next few years and, in 1958, she began to see a therapist for the first time. Neel credits her therapist with encouraging her to be more ambitious with her work and “getting it into the world”. She summoned the courage to approach the poet Frank O’Hara, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, to sit for her. The picture appeared in ARTnews alongside an enthusiastic review describing how “her paintings cast a spell’.

This marked a turning point in Neel’s career, and she began to paint more recognisable figures, including Andy Warhol. His portrait reveals Neel’s remarkable ability to get her sitters to trust her, allowing her to paint them with all their vulnerabilities. In Warhol’s case, this included showing the scars that had resulted from a vicious assault by Valerie Solanas, a former member of Warhol’s Factory entourage.

Other well-known faces amongst Neel’s sitters included feminists Kate Millet (whose portrait Neel was commissioned to paint for the cover of Time magazine), Mary D. Garrard (known for her ground-breaking studies of Artemisia Gentileschi) and Linda Nochlin (author of ‘Why are there no great women artists?’) Neel’s ability to disarm seems not to have worked on Garrard, who looks particularly ill-at-ease in the familiar blue and white striped chair. Still wearing her hat, coat and scarf, she looks directly at the artist, as if daring her to reveal anything beyond her inscrutable surface. Nochlin is painted with her young daughter, Daisy. Apparently, Neel was keen to portray Nochlin as both an intellectual and a mother. She told the eminent art historian, “you don’t look anxious, but you are anxious”. Perhaps she was projecting her own maternal anxiety onto her sitter.

Neel would have to wait until 1974, when she was 74 years old, to have the first retrospective exhibition of her work, which was held at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. The Barbican art director, Will Gompertz, describes Neel’s portraits as “the very opposite of an Instagram image … You can’t photograph what Alice Neel painted. Her ability to simultaneously show a sitter’s conscious and unconscious state, and imperceptibly morph the two, was a magic trick of sorts … She didn’t simply paint faces, she revealed souls.”

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in London in 1977 to Ghanaian parents, is one of a number of artists who have transformed portraiture over the last decade. Her recent exhibition at London’s venerable Tate Britain follows earlier shows in Munich, Basel and New York, among others. Some of her works are also featured in the Reaching for the Stars exhibition at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi.

Yiadom-Boakye’s works, while recognisably part of the continuum of European portraiture, are innovative in their subject-matter, style and atmosphere. Most notably, rather than working with live models, Yiadom-Boakye draws from her experience as a writer to create her own fictional subjects. In doing so, she turns the aphorism that ‘portraits are the one genre of art in which the subject is more important than the artist’ on its head. “Over time,” she says, “I realised I needed to think less about the subject and more about the painting. So I began to think seriously about colour, light and composition.”

The artist also subtly subverts traditional portraiture in rejecting the genre’s conventional function of not only creating a likeness, but conveying the sitter’s class and status, usually by including symbolic objects denoting education, wealth and power – or their opposites. Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects are difficult to place within a social group or culture or a specific place or time period. This timeless quality is deliberate, as it requires the viewer to engage with the subject and to use their curiosity to project their own interpretations and imagine the story behind the painting.

Installation shot,Tate Britain hosts Yiadom-Boakye’s Fly in League with the Night

ph. Madeline Buddo

The canvases depict young men and women, by themselves or in small groups, many larger than life-sized. The scale adds to the quality of the work. Very broadly and confidently painted, the compositions are intriguing, drawing the viewer in. “Her painting of dark skin in shadow, circumambient gloaming or night is superb,” says critic Laura Cumming. “She makes a strong virtue of contrapposto, chiaroscuro and the sumptuous sinking of oil into linen.”

A young male dancer stretches at the barre while his friends engage in conversation nearby, two girls play in the rockpools along a beach, absorbed in their activity and each other, a woman with an elaborate frilly collar stares out unblinkingly from the canvas – is she willing you to come closer or daring you to stay away? In Penny for Them (2014), another woman resting her chin in her hand is lost in thought. In each case, the audience may be reminded of a painting they have seen or a memory from their own life. It is up to us to give these characters their story.

Tate Britain is home to a collection of British artworks dating back to 1545. Seeing a whole gallery there filled with her work is a powerful experience. “That Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects happen to be Black, reflecting her own identity, reminds us of the overwhelming whiteness of the tradition of [European portraiture],” notes the museum’s Director, Alex Farquharson. Yiadom-Boakye points out that, “Blackness has never been other to me. Therefore, I’ve never felt the need to explain its presence in the work anymore than I’ve felt the need to explain my presence in the world, however often I’m asked.”

Installation shot,Tate Britain hosts Yiadom-Boakye’s Fly in League with the Night

ph. Madeline Buddo


Despite their many differences – in background, style and subject matter – Neel and Yiadom-Boakye have both succeeded in ‘bringing out whatever their subjects have in common with the rest of humanity’, the goal that art historian Erwin Panofsky identified as the central desire of Renaissance artists. Neel talked to her subjects as if they were old friends, allowing them to relax and drop their guard so that she could catch something of their inner nature. Yiadom-Boakye’s fictional sitters are enigmatic ‘strangers’ on whom we can project our own thoughts and desires. By thinking about what we see in them, we learn something about ourselves.

Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle is at London’s Barbican Art Gallery until 21 May 2023.

Reaching for the Stars is at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, until 18 June 2023.


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