In our Spring 2022 quarterly, we have an extensive survey and conversation about the exhibitionAlice Neel: People Come First, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco opening March 12, 2022. In conjunction with the feature, we asked a few contemporary artists about the influence of Neel, as both a portrait painter and that influence today as figuration as once again become a central focal point of contemporary art.

We recently spoke with Amsterdam-based painter Esiri Erheriene-Essi on how Neel influenced her work. Erheriene-Essi reconstructs and reimagines in her storytelling, a painter who takes the mundane moments of everyday life and makes them profound. 

"I am obsessed with Alice Neel; I think painting is a magical medium and Alice to be one of the most magical painters to have existed. Maybe because she was a woman in a male dominated art world. Maybe it’s because in the time she was painting figuratively, and portraits nonetheless, abstract expressionism was all the rage, then pop art and then minimal art. One trend after the other and yet she ignored them all as she was obsessed with people and so figurative painting were her passion. That taught me a lot, fads come and go but obsessions are to be trusted and it just so happens that painting people is my obsession too.

"Alice taught me to paint – I devoured her paintings through books (I own every book out there on her) and in person when lucky enough to see them in various exhibitions across the world. I don’t know why I feel so intensely about Neel’s paintings, if I’m honest. Her brushstrokes are sublime of course, that goes without saying. A lot of the time the people in her paintings stare out at you with haunting eyes from the past, and engage with you, the viewer, in the present. They don’t just watch you in a passive way, they silently encourage you to engage with and encounter them. There is a physical connection that Neel has so deftly concocted, like a magician who weaves a picture vivid enough that you can not only see but also feel her and the sitters’ vibrations. When I look at her paintings I can never get close enough to them, I look at the people who she found important enough to paint – her children, fellow artists such as Faith Ringgold and Benny Andrews in THAT amazing striped chair, or anonymous people in and around her neighbourhood that equally captured her attention. When you compare the known and unknown people that she painted, there is no sense of hierarchy. 

"Neel was obsessed with paint and depicting the people in her life over the decades, and that is what I love. Also, the way she paints hands are amazing, when I mess up in my own paintings I always go grab a Alice Neel book and see how she managed to solve the age old question of ‘how to paint hands and feet in a passable way’. Alice’s gnarly hands are the most beautiful in the entire history of art."

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi, Amsterdam, Jan 10th 2022.