Cheim & Read will present a group of important historical works by Alice Neel, with a focus on her early work, beginning in 1928 with Requiem, a watercolor she made shortly after her move from Havana to New York and the tragic death of her first, infant daughter in 1927. Though active and established in New York, it would not be until the rise of Feminism in the 1970s when Neel would receive her due with a 1974 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. This early body of work is essential to the artist’s development of her signature mark-making and irreverent style. Throughout her life, Neel’s paintings changed dramatically in terms of style and subject matter. Neel paints views out her Spanish Harlem apartment window, sweeping seascapes, and images of New York street life in addition to her iconic portraits.
In Ninth Avenue El, 1935, the artist’s attention to the electric lights — once a symbol of Modernist urbanity in the work of painters like Robert Delaunay — here lends a foreboding aura. Neel was resolutely focused on the pedestrian view of the street, and included figures, train cars, and street lights. In the wake of the Great Depression, the figure are oppressed by their urban environment, weighted under the twilight blue sky and the black train tracks. Neel was forward-thinking in her use of content and narrative and anticipated later works by political and social artists. This work is committed to Neel’s 2021 retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In an exquisite 1968 double portrait, Nancy & Olivia, Neel painted her daughter, Nancy Neel, with her granddaughter, Olivia. Neel frequently painted mothers and daughters, and the subject cannot be separated from the traumatic loss of her first daughter to sickness, and her second to her husband’s return to Cuba. The minimal application of the almost-abstract background is little more than a wash of blue-gray over a swath of primed canvas, suggesting the figure’s shadows against a white wall. The gestural resolve underscores Neel’s affinity with contemporaneous abstract painting techniques.