Recently Hilton Als has been choosing paintings for “Alice Neel, Uptown,” a show that will open at David Zwirner, in New York, in late February 2017. He discussed his curatorial process with Lucas Zwirner, editorial director of David Zwirner Books, which will publish a catalogue based on the show.
One thing that has always impressed me about Alice Neel is that she painted so many people of color. I never understood why there hadn’t been a show of these portraits. I see it as diversity within diversity, meaning, how do you represent the diversity of the world you’re in—East Harlem, for example, where she lived. And not just African Americans, but the full scope of racial diversity. Alice was and was not a part of that world, by virtue of being a white woman from Pennsylvania, but it attracted and interested her. I think political correctness has done a lot to obscure the ways in which people are much more diverse in their interests than we give them credit for.
What do you mean?
For example, five years ago people would not have been inclined to do a show on Alice Neel’s paintings of colored people, meaning people of non-European descent, because they would feel that we—the curators, the gallery—were essentializing the people in the pictures. But in fact, what we’re doing is talking about one of Alice’s major interests, meaning these communities, the people, the men. These were not blind points in her work, so they shouldn’t be obscured, and I always feel that Alice is taking as many risks as the subject, that what she sees is really all of the things that make up a person. She wasn’t afraid of race. She just wasn’t. And that must have been a weird thing in the 1930s, and later, too—especially today! But she wasn’t glorifying race either. These were people to her.