Alice Neel, Whitechapel Gallery

    I had two sorts of reaction to Alice Neel, the long-forgotten American portrait painter whose work has gone on show at the Whitechapel Gallery. One when I saw her pictures in the flesh; another when I came home and looked at them in the catalogue. One was an excited reaction, full of admiration; the other a so-so response, flecked with annoyance.

    Unfortunately, the so-so reaction was at the gallery, where the first Neel retrospective in Britain has been enterprisingly mounted by the increasingly wilful Whitechapel.

    In an art world where most public institutions appear to be reading the same magazines, the Whitechapel is pursuing a wacky policy of its own, with lots of emphasis on the older woman. Good on them.

    Neel was born in 1900, yet only “discovered” in 1974, when a revelatory survey at the Whitney in New York unearthed her forgotten 50-year career. The Whitney show happened at an opportune moment for her. A brief quote from the Whitechapel press release tells you all you need to know about the circumstances: “Neel gained popular and critical acclaim in the 1970s, when feminism exposed western society’s male, white, heterosexual bias in society and the arts.” The times were right. Feminism was searching for new heroes. Political correctness had taken hold of the American view of history and was turning it into herstory.

    Our job, of course, is not to agree with the conclusions reached at Neel’s circumstance-driven rediscovery, but to decide upon her true worth for ourselves. Alas, the Whitechapel show is unhelpfully arranged in thematic clusters, and this scrambling of her timeline makes it difficult to form a coherent picture of her development. Surely one of the jobs of a retrospective is to present an artistic career in a manner legible enough for the audience to gain a sense of its whole? Here, only in the final section, devoted to portraits of old people, does an unmistakable convergence of theme and chronology give the survey a truly climactic ending, with a fierce circle of twinkling old codgers and defiant ancient queens — including Neel herself: in the buff, aged 80, white hair pulled up neatly in a bun, inquisitive spectacles, an old maid’s cussedness to her demeanour.

    If you cut out her face and ignored her brazenly splodgy nude body, she would make a perfect Miss Marple on the cover of an Agatha Christie paperback.

    Neel’s defining characteristic was to remain a portraitist when portraiture was deeply unfashionable. The number of great modernist portraitists can be counted on Django Reinhardt’s left hand: Soutine, Modigliani, Picasso. That’s it. Plenty of other talents turned to the genre occasionally, but not in a determined or hungry fashion. Photography saw them all off. She was highly unusual in devoting most of her energies to this disreputable genre. Ninety five percent of this retrospective consists of portrayals of people in her circle — friends, family, allies — some of whom are famous (Andy Warhol, Robert Smithson), most of whom are not.

    The show’s first theme focuses on “allegorical portraiture”: portraits with symbolic ambitions. As an early supporter of the Communist party, Neel was a one-woman gunpowder plot of revolutionary urges, and in the 1920s and 1930s she used portraiture to express them. Her likeness of Pat Whalen, the communist union organiser of the longshoremen of Baltimore, features an angry worker hero with a granite jaw, banging a huge fist down on a copy of the Daily Worker. The message could hardly be clearer: “Bring me the boss. I’m gonna smash him!” Mexico, remember, was just across the border. And the Zapatista aromas of Rivera, Orozco and Frida Kahlo had clearly floated across to fill her nostrils. When the FBI came calling in the 1950s, its report summed her up as “a romantic bohemian-type communist”, which is unusually accurate for the FBI. If you’re looking for reasons why Neel was ignored by the American Establishment for 50 years, look no further.

    Theme two, “psychological portraits”, contains some of the show’s best art, notably the pale, sagging portrayal of Andy Warhol with his moobs out. Warhol was notoriously sensitive about his appearance, hence his desperate resort to a baldness-covering fright wig. Yet Neel, who saw her role as that of “a therapist revealing her sitter’s psyche”, somehow persuaded him to take off his top and sit there looking as vulnerable as a prawn yanked out of its casing. Valerie Solanas had recently shot him, and the thick scars that disfigure Andy’s podgy torso are cruelly evident. The saggy man breasts, too, are emphatically unheroic. So is the corset poking out grubbily above his waistband. Only a mother figure, you feel, could ever have extracted this much uncomfortable confession from the ice king.

    To return, though, to my opening point: the Warhol portrait is unrepresentative of the show in general, in being more impressive in the flesh than in reproduction. On the wall, Warhol’s body has a cadaverous glow to it, and the large area of bare canvas left empty around him seems to form a mandala of fragility. Having met the man, I can confirm that he had a weird way of both being there and, somehow, not being there. When you touched Andy, there was no resistance. He was half-man, half-ghost, and Neel gets that perfectly. Which is unusual. The fact is, her “psychological” portraiture is frustratingly hit-and-miss. The Mexican-style primitivism she clung to so doggedly during half a century of living in Manhattan forces most of her faces into a characterless stare. The children, in particular, are always angry dolls. If you’re alienated and glum, she captures you. If you’re not, she makes you alienated and glum anyway.

    Interestingly, this cartoonish portraiture of Neel’s reproduces rather well. The catalogue illustrations for the Whitechapel show tighten up her various loosenesses and disarm the garish colour clashes that are an uncomfortable feature of her work in situ. Turning a page and seeing a new Neel is a more convincing experience than wandering among real ones, noting the failures. And her belated fashionableness surely owes as much to the photogenic nature of her portraits as to her right-on history as an artistic amazon.

    That said, the show improves as it develops. A detour to encounter her atmospheric cityscapes is particularly welcome. The guiding influence here is obviously Edward Hopper, notably in a couple of spooky views across the street, painted when she was in her seventies. New York is bathed in sunlight. But nobody is around to enjoy it. The city is empty, and a lonely voyeur stares at the shadows falling across the blank walls and notices how they seem to count down the hours like a sundial.

    When she was in her sixties, Neel made her family the focus of her attentions. A series of mothers and daughters has been held up as a particularly insightful contribution to family portraiture. I found them melodramatic and clunky. Eyes bulging. Terrors throbbing. Psyches screeching. In the Neel family, every day seemed to feel like the end of the world.