Striking images of ignored Americans

The painting took around three sittings to complete and Neel being Neel, there was much conversation. “She was very interested in what I was doing, which was bridging art and porn,” says Sprinkle. “I was of course thrilled that this 80-something woman was fearlessly painting me, joyfully painting me, because in ’82 we were a small fringe group, and very much prejudiced against,” Sprinkle tells BBC Culture. “I think she really captured me in a non-judgmental and beautiful way, but also with depth and complexity.”

Sprinkle’s portrait closes the show. Opening it is Neel’s glorious nude self-portrait, completed when she was 80. “All my life I wanted to do a nude self-portrait, but I put it off till now – when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity,” she quipped.

In between are portraits that thrum with life, vitality and Neel’s particular insight, born of her own journey to the edge. “I think many of the most interesting artists have had some extreme life experiences that allow them to paint very expansively because they paint from a place in which they have experienced altered states of mind and body and that can make for a very rich art practice,” says Nairne.

“To have that kind of nerviness to your work can be connected to a capacity to give a painting the feel of life force. You need a kind of extra bodily sensitivity and I think she was somebody who had that.”

Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle is at the Barbican Art Gallery from 16 February to 21 May 2023.

The accompanying book Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle, edited by Eleanor Nairne, with essays by Eleanor Nairne, Hilton Als and poetry by Daisy Lafarge, is published by Prestel, March 2023.

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