A unique collection of social realism best describes Neel’s depictions of 20th Century America on show at the Whitechapel Gallery. A contrast to the emotional detachment dominating the mid-century art scene, Neel grapples openly with the flaws in post-industrialized metropolitanism, expounding them in works such as Ninth Avenue El (1935). Moreover, her studies embrace introspection; the pains of motherhood and loss clearly addressed. The most striking for me was Futility of Effort (1930), a draining response to the loss of her first child to diphtheria. Her rendering, verging on caricature, and use of heightened primary colours reiterates the subjectivity that drives her creations. The success of this is evident in her depiction of Joe Gould: his genitals are not only engorged but repeated, parodying the vanity that she recognized in the sitter.
Unknown for the best part of her career, Neel’s collection maintains an authenticity and continuity despite its time span. However, her growing success and accompanying self-confidence is clear in the gradual increase in canvas size and fluidity of brushwork. It is reassuring to see an artist, constricted by issues of gender and social duty, refusing to submit to trends, instead waiting on them to submit to her.