Art & Photography

Portrait of a Harlem Intellectual

On the occasion of Victoria Miro’s exhibition ‘Alice Neel, Uptown’, we share an extract from Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als’ essay on the revolutionary intellectual, Harold Cruse

Alice Neel, Harold Cruse, c.1950 © The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London

Alice Neel was a New York artist known for her portraits of the city’s African American, Latino and Asian communities as well as cultural figures with ties to Harlem and the civil rights movement. Curated by critic and author Hilton Als, ‘Alice Neel, Uptown’ focuses on paintings the artist made during the five decades she lived and worked in upper Manhattan. 

Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, his magnum opus, in 1967, by which time the civil rights movement had given way to black nationalism, exemplified by the Black Panther Party and other organizations. Cruse was a man of action. Born in Virginia, he was raised in New York; after high school he served in the army during World War II; after returning from Europe, he attended the City College of New York and became a member of the Communist Party. That association lasted for several years, after which time he co-founded, with the poet Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in Harlem. Cruse always loved the stage. A favorite aunt used to take him to shows when he was growing up, but he felt the commercial theater underrepresented people of color; he thought that blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and others should tell their own stories and be, to some extent, culturally self-governing. Cruse’s most famous book began as a talk; it grew, and grows in the mind. His portraits of black intellectuals ranging from Richard Wright to Lorraine Hansberry to James Baldwin, in addition to his analysis of Jewish liberals and black politics, remain incredibly powerful and agitating. Cruse was not a stylist the way that Alice Neel was a stylist; his voice is not about nuance but building an argument. Beauty was not his project; his aim was to describe what had happened to black America in the cradle of modernism—Harlem in the 1920s, and after.

‘Alice Neel, Uptown’ is on show at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, until 28 July 

This an extract taken from the accompanying catalogue published by David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro