Hilton Als, Alice Neel, and the Faces of New York

The American essayist, curator, and artist Hilton Als is perhaps most concerned with New York and remembering her children. He’s spent much of his career at The New Yorker, writing anthropological dispatches from the city’s theaters, outer boroughs, artist studios, streets, and subways—using the first person as a way to get at the heart and humanity of the city, the people he adored, how they arrived, what they wore, what kind of art they made, their victories, the effects of AIDS, and the unceremonious ways they went. This is all captured in an exhibition currently on view at David Zwirner gallery in New York, curated by Als, titled “Alice Neel, Uptown,” which will travel later this spring to Victoria Miro gallery in London.

“I believe that one reason I began writing essays—a form without a form, until you make it—was this: you didn’t have to borrow from an emotionally and visually upsetting past, as one did in fiction, apparently, to write your story,” Als writes in the introduction to his forthcoming book, which is titled after the exhibition. “In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but about the collective—all the voices that made your ‘I.’ When I first saw Alice Neel’s pictures, I think I recognized a similar ethos of inclusion in her work.”

“Alice Neel, Uptown” spans the nearly five decades that Neel, a painter, spent living uptown after the Great Depression through the 1970s. There she painted mostly non-famous, black and brown people: children; mothers and friends she came to know in El Barrio; and interracial couples. Benjamin (1976), a portrait of a young black boy dressed in a blue pullover against a blue backdrop, evokes the dignity and promise of her pictures. He sits looking directly ahead, waiting patiently to be represented. It’s a fully human depiction, and it doesn’t use the black or brown body to advance what Als calls an “ideological cause.” Benjamin as rendered by Neel is simply a black child, being. How powerful is that? Like Als on the page today, Neel’s paintings then captured all that she loved about the city, which is to say she imaged figures she knew had to be seen to be remembered.

Shortly after the exhibition opened, we sat down with Als at David Zwirner to discuss his writing life, Alice Neel’s pictures, and the city he holds dear.


HILTON ALS: I’ve loved her always. She really was always such a humanist to me. I also loved how she didn’t condescend to her subjects, and that people were really interesting in and of themselves. It’s very hard to find artists in the history of western art who don’t make portraiture ideological in some way. I really felt that she worked with people, collaborated with them in ways that I feel I understand. I wanted to talk to her through her work at some point in my life. I didn’t know when that would happen, and I’m grateful to David [Zwirner] for making it possible. I always felt deeply connected to the psychic energy in the paintings, and also the stories one could read in the paintings without necessarily knowing who the people were. She was very clear about who they were, not so much biographically but I think psychically and spiritually.

SARGENT: In the introduction of your forthcoming book on Neel, you write about how she did not treat colored people as an “ideological cause” but as a point of interest in the life she was leading uptown. I get the point about western art or about political art, which in a lot of ways for me means that artists working in those frameworks sometimes take away from all of the things that make their subjects human. The subjects become a representation of what the artist wanted to express and less, as you said, a kind of pouring in of energy from both sides.

ALS: People approach people of color with [preconceived] ideas. I don’t think this is just restricted to white people, but I think that lots of black and white artists, when race is a subject matter, they put race or the ideology around race first. They don’t see the person and the complications of the human being. That’s what I feel is really weirdly about how Alice Neel was treated: Why was she treated as though there was no real chance for us to be human? She took on the onerous task of how we’re treated and said, “Oh my god, it’s so much more complicated to be in the world than not be in the world.”

SARGENT: One of the things that jumped out to me in relation to this point is the way that she titled a lot of her paintings. She led with identity, right? Black Spanish-American Family, Two Puerto Rican Boys, Black Man, among others. For some that would represent a contradiction.

ALS: I think she was interested in it, for sure. I feel that for many of us, what’s not admitted to often is that we might be attracted to someone not of our race, right? I don’t think that she was ashamed of that. I think that in our current PC world we have a lot of anxiety about [that]. Let’s say if I was exclusively into white dudes or whatever, there would be a lot of shame about that. Or if there was a white man into black men, there would be a lot of shame around that. Why should there be? Everybody has a taste. I think she took that kind of onerous [quality] off of it and said, “I’m attracted to this person in part because of what they look like, in part because of who they are.”

SARGENT: In this current PC world I think it’s hard, for a lot of reasons, to go back to a space of generosity without seeing these paintings in a way that doesn’t suggest Neel had an agenda. These were simply the people who were living around Neel. These are the lives that she saw out the window. The story you told at your gallery talk, for me, speaks to her motivations. You said that two boys heard she was painting figures in the neighborhood and showed up at her apartment and asked, “Can you paint us too?”

ALS: Yes, yes. There’s an extraordinary act of will in this world to not believe that you are seen, and then there’s this person that sees you, and the idea of and reality of it is so moving to me, that those boys would come to her door and say, “We hear you paint Spanish kids.” She gave everybody an opportunity in her consciousness and in her art.

I think she’s a pioneer in a certain way in that she understood the politics of race not being about identifying through race. I think that’s really the thing that is so extraordinary about her: She’s not identifying through race, but race is part of what she’s painting. It’s part of the world that she was living in. As I said, there are not a lot of white ladies that would move up there during the post-Depression years. Why? It was because she was interested in the culture. She felt that that was her home.

SARGENT: Which of her works most resonate with you?

ALS: I think Ron, for sure—Ron Kajiwara. … Ron really is something that slays me in terms of New York, and a certain kind of attitude and self-defensiveness that I think was really amazing. I think, because I was a young kid then, that particularly gay attitude was something that I was very familiar with.

SARGENT: Right. One of the loose themes I picked up throughout the shows that you’ve curated is that in a lot of ways, they’re about New York. In a lot of ways they’re about the creators or makers, the people, the places of what we now call “old New York.”

ALS: That’s an interesting theme. I didn’t notice it, but I’m the last person to understand what I’m doing. [laughs]

I think it has something to do with the fact that I really miss lots of people who died. I think it has something to do with mourning folks who are no longer here and that were part of my growing up. I think that because I grew up here and because I miss these people and I grieve them, a way of having them back is to celebrate New York, in a way. I didn’t even notice that, but you’re completely correct that a lot of these shows are about New York.

SARGENT: In what ways has the city changed for you?

ALS: I think missing people that I could talk to about the changes in New York, so that people who lived here and grew up with me, I could say, “Oh my god, the newsstand on Sixth and Eighth Street is not there anymore.” I just noticed it in a cab the other day, and I was like, “Remember when we used go and get Interview or whatever that was out that month?” I miss sharing that.

SARGENT: Yeah. In that vein, one of the things that people love is your Instagram account, particularly in the ways you are picturing the city today through its people: simple portraits, often of people in motion, people not always paying attention to the camera.  

ALS: Oh, do they? I just put them up, and I never think that people are really responding. When people are quote-unquote “sitting” for me, I do it very quickly, before they can stop and put their face on.


ALS: I think it’s about remembering, right? I don’t want to forget people. I think, for sure, it’s an act of remembrance on my part, that there’s nothing lost and everything to gain if we remember.

SARGENT: One of the things that’s interesting about this idea of remembrance, particularly in the time that you detail in your books—The Women, White Girls, and the forthcoming Alice Neel, Uptown—in different ways, is what AIDS did to an entire generation of people. For me, some of the more powerful writing of yours that I’ve read has to do with this question of, “How do we go on if the people that we love the most died?”

ALS: I said this to a friend the other day: that I’m at home with the living and the dead. She said, “That equals writer”—that as writers, we’re always remembering something. I think that’s correct, that we remember. I think writing is an act of remembrance, I think that Instagram is an act of remembrance, and I think curating a show is an act of memory, too.

SARGENT: You also created your own work in James Baldwin/Jim Brown and The Children, one of the suite of shows you curated at the Artist’s Institute. Why did you start creating art? Is that also an act of remembrance for you?

ALS: For many, many years I was always very close to visual artists and I would always act as a source of support for them and be in love with them. Then, again, they disappeared in some way, and I started to make things in order to remember those feelings, but also to not put myself second to them anymore, to put myself out there as an artist. I used to always love taking photos, but I would always give a camera away to someone else. Now I don’t give the camera away anymore. It also takes a long time to develop a visual style, and I think that the things that I was imitating [were] people I love, like Judy Linn or Gerald Turner, and then it slowly started to become more myself. Because you also find the format that really works for you; the idea that I don’t have to carry equipment and that it’s all in this thing [points to cell phone] is amazing to me.

SARGENT: What can images do that writing can’t?

ALS: First of all, it doesn’t take as long. [laughs] It’s just another form of communication.

SARGENT: You sit down and you curate a show, which is its own set of processes, and then you sit down and you write a book about it. What’s the difference?

ALS: You’re with other people here [in the gallery] and by yourself. Also, writing takes more time. … It demands musing, and a kind of sadness, in a way. I think that when you work with other people, you’re not internalized in quite the same way. Your interiority gets affected because there are other elements coming in. Somebody says, “You can’t paint that wall,” or, “Sorry, at the last minute we got this painting. How does it fit into the show?”

SARGENT: I think it’s remarkable that having spent so much time with artists you are still asking questions like “what is art?” or “how did this person understand the world? And how did they make their understandings art?”

ALS: I think it’s about how do we perceive? I’m very interested in the question of how we perceive something, how consciousness goes from one thing, like looking at you in your black hat to what it might mean to my imagination and how I would draw that or write that, how I would subjectify you? It’s something that is endlessly interesting to me.

SARGENT: Is that why, say, in White Girls, The Women, or even your curatorial work, you’re always taking up the figure?

ALS: Yes. I think I’m just generally more interested in figuration than abstraction. I think that painting abstraction often feels like painting colors to me, whereas portraits always feel like something connected. I like the exchange, the collaborative aspect of sitter and subject for sure.

SARGENT: For you, when you were writing about, say, André Leon Talley, an ex-lover, your mother, or father, is that process like that of a painter and her sitter?

ALS: That’s interesting… I didn’t think of it that way. I think it’s a way of getting into a conversation about many things. If you can do it through a life, your own or someone else’s, then you find a little bit of the mystery of yourself. You begin to understand something about yourself.

SARGENT: Do you get up every morning and write?

ALS: It’s like the old wonderful story about George Balanchine. He’s asked, “Where do you get your inspiration?” And he said, “The union, dear. I have to be finished by six o’clock.” For me, it’s the deadline.

SARGENT: A lot of people that I’ve talked to about this show have said things like, “This show is perfect for America right now.” Do you feel that way?

ALS: I hate that phrase. It’s been driving me nuts. She’s perfect for America all the time. She’s a great artist, and she means something all the time. The thing that is so weird is when you think about certain artists, they only paint people of their class, or they only paint people of their background. She’s saying, “No, no, no, New York is not just me. It’s this world.” I think that that’s part of her brilliance. She reported on that world.

SARGENT: One of the things that is so powerful about this exhibition of paintings is that these are people despite their circumstances, whatever they may be, who are saying, “I want to be seen.”

ALS: That’s right. I think we have to celebrate that. Don’t you?