Zurich; ‘Alice Neel’ at Thomas Ammann Fine Arts AG

by Venetia Kapernekas

A short trip to Zurich last Friday afternoon visiting Thomas Ammann Fine Arts AG, for an extraordinary exhibition ‘Alice Neel’( b. 1900 – d. 1984)  at the beautiful villa on the hills of Zurich.   Thomas Amman Fine Arts in collaboration with the Estate of Alice Neel has selected and exhibits fourteen paintings which cover all periods of the artist’s career,  significant and representative of her time.  This is the first Alice Neel exhibition in Switzerland.


Alice Neel was born 1900 in Philadelphia and was trained at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Partly influenced by the thoughts of Robert Henri – a former teacher at her school – who had written them in his book The Art Spirit, Neel set about painting scenes from life, and “told the truth the best I was able.” After the end of her marriage with the Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez, Neel became a single mother keeping herself and her children above water with grants by the government-sponsored WPA. Early on Neel had left-wing beliefs and also a strong social consciousness, which had a bearing on her idiosyncratic choice of sitters. In each of her neighborhoods, Greenwich Village, Spanish Harlem and Upper West Side, she painted neighbors, family members, casual acquaintances, and interesting people she came across. She was an independent spirit who did not paint on commission, and paid no attention to the fashions of art, as she was devoted to realist depiction in an era of increasing abstraction…(Thomas Amman Fine Arts press)



photos @ Janosch Vögeli,  Thomas Amman Fine Arts, AG

“….While Neel often felt ambivalence towards post-war abstraction, on some occasions condemning it, and at other times acknowledging its prescient value, she was in essence psychologically motivated and sought to interact directly with the emotional dynamics of portraiture. That she is intensely aware of the dichotomous tensions in post-war American painting is acknowledged in the portrait of Georgie Arce. The painting may be seen as emblematic of her crucial period of transition since in the post-war decade she had survived with her two children largely on public assistance along with few sales.” ( from the essay by Mark Gasbourne on the published illustrated catalog for the exhibition) 

It was a beautiful experience to see this extraordinary exhibition, and a treat to have a tour of Alice Neel’s work by  Han Byul Jung, the art historian in-house at Thomas Ammann Fine Arts.   The gallery/villa holds a unique setting in Zurich hills (Amman villa was built in 1930 by the Swiss architect Otto Rudolf Salvisberg).

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 garden view,  villa Thomas Ammann Fine Arts,  sculpture by Cy Twombly, photo@VK

view of the exhibition from the north room, photo @VK

 …although her work was highly regarded in bohemian New York, success came late.  Her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1974, The Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia, 1975, and her inclusion in the groundbreaking exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, 1977, marked a breakthrough. In Europe, her paintings and drawings were-until recently-little known. … (Doris Ammann & Georg Frei, published catalog, 2015) 


Alice Neel in New York City at David Zwirner gallery, May 2012


a beautifully illustrated catalog, 2015,  is published by Thomas Amman Fine Art,  with an essay by Mark Gisbourne.

‘...The rupture following the US involvement in the Second World War created a cultural elision in American art and was to totally change the perception of painting and particularly traditional genres such as painted portraiture. Against the background of Clement Greenberg’s ‘high modernism,’ the portrait of many became seen as a quaint and unfashionable entity. Painting evolved into questions about the processes of abstraction and surface autonomy, or compositional systems of material construction, thereby diminishing the portrait along with other genres that dealt primarily with the individuated subject matter.” (from Mark Gisbourne’s essay) 

See gallery exhibition installation views at Thomas Ammann Fine Arts, AG  and for more information, see on Alice Neel special site. There are some amazing articles by wonderful writers that you may read here, please note a wonderful “Painted Truths: Showing the Barbarity of Life: Alice Neel’s Grotesque” by Jeremy Lewison