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L.A. Louver mounts Alice Neel show, billed as the region's first in decades

May 19, 2010 |  9:00 am

Aliceneelpair

A figurative painter from her student days in Philadelphia in the 1920s until her death in New York in 1984, Alice Neel became famous for her nudes. She made hairy, lumpy, let-it-all-hang-out portraits of women and men that art critics compare to Expressionist images by Egon Schiele for their ugly beauty and visceral power.

But Barry Walker, one of the curators of the current Alice Neel retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, has another take on her work as well. While consistently bohemian in her own appearance and lifestyle (she had three children by three different fathers), Neel was also, in Walker’s view, one of the great painters of the changing fashions of the 20th century.

“She saw herself in a way as an urban historian,” Walker said. “And she captured the way people looked and dressed across the decades – even years we wish we could have taken back.”

You can see this side of Neel starting Thursday evening at L.A. Louver gallery in Venice. Gallery director Peter Goulds calls it “the first major Neel exhibition in the L.A. area in decades.” In 1991, the Linda Cathcart Gallery in Santa Monica showed "Alice Neel in Spanish Harlem"; in 1983 the Loyola Marymount University gallery had a substantial survey of her work.

The new show features 16 portraits of family, friends and acquaintances from the 1940s to '70s and just as many clothing styles. 

Note the different cuts of the men's jackets from Neel’s 1940 portrait of her lover Sam Brody, above, to her 1965 portrait of friend Frank Gentile. Or the urban cowboy getup worn by artist Joey Scaggs in 1967, also pictured here. Prices in the show range from $350,000 to $1.2 million.

Jeremy Lewison, the former director of collections at the Tate Modern in London, helped organize the exhibition in his role as advisor to the Neel estate. Previously he has placed Neel’s work with David Zwirner in New York and Victoria Miro in London for high-profile solo shows with those galleries. 

He also served as co-curator for the Houston museum retrospective, making him a major player in Neel scholarship as well as the market.

Lewison says he chose to work with L.A. Louver this time around because of its program. “I thought there was some kind of complementarity because they show David Hockney and Leon Kossoff, who also do figurative work and portraits," he says. "I thought Kossoff in particular shares something of Neel’s intensity.”

-- Jori Finkel

Follow the writer on Twitter: @jorifinkel.

From left, Sam (Sea Biscuit), 1940, and Joey Scaggs, 1967.
Paintings copyright The Estate of Alice Neel and courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice.

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