Jed Perl, New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, 646 pp., Knopf, $35
Sophisticated art-worlders like to beat up on Jed Perl, and it must be said that the curmudgeonly critic for the New Republic brings much of this abuse upon himself, possibly rivaling even Hilton Kramer, his erstwhile editor at the New Criterion, as most-reviled art critic at work today. He is seen by many as conservative and backward looking, but what underlies his attacks on Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Gerhard Richter and other avant-garde behemoths is a palpable disdain for the sprawling, white-hot art market.
Perl’s fury at the art-world limelight is based on his belief that personal intuition, not art-marketeering, is the sound basis for studio activity, and that artists, beguiled by the promise of financial reward, are turning their backs on their own best impulses in favor of a thin post-Warholian gruel. If artwork possesses a whiff of spectacle, market calculation or consciousness of its own position relative to the spectrum of stylistic options available to artists now, Perl will hate it, and say so.
This principled approach has probably endeared his critical writing to some, but to others his rants are tiresome to read, as they distract from his thorough scholarship and honed prose. In the opening paragraphs of a recent article for TNR called "A Theory of How The Art World Went to Hell," a well-argued and otherwise enjoyable screed on the decline of the influence of formalist orthodoxy, Perl limbers up by attacking -- unfairly, in my view -- Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz, offering up Saltz as a typical example of an art-world insider bewitched by the glitz and glamour of high-stakes art speculation. Ironically, the article Perl cites as proof -- "The Emperor’s New Paintings," an exquisite evisceration of Damian Hirst’s Photo Realist show last spring at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea -- is Saltz at his righteously indignant best, and thrilling to read, exactly because Saltz’s level-headed and clear-eyed commentary cuts right through the crap.
But, you see, Roberta Smith, who is married to Saltz, blasted the National Academy of Design Museum’s incarnation of the traveling exhibition of Jean Helion, of whom Perl has long been an ardent champion. Saltz gets in his whacks by dubbing his "Worst Best-known Artist Award" the "Kitaj Prize," after the American painter R.B. Kitaj, another Perl favorite, and one he discusses at great length in the TNR piece. This is art criticism as contact sport. The equivalent probably exists in every field where people are passionate about their subject.
Which brings us to the present work, New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, released last October by Knopf. Unlike Perl’s three previous books, it is not a collection of pieces, but a sustained survey of the Manhattan milieu from the late 1940s through the early ‘60s, with considerable back-story emerging, naturally, from the pre-War decade. The book’s 550 pages of text are propelled by enthusiasm and love of the subject, rather than by the distain and vitriol we might expect from Perl.
The book’s daunting length is made manageable by its fluid but logical organization. In section after section, Perl unpacks the period primarily from the point of view of the artists working in the crucible of the New York School, retelling a familiar tale and, against all odds, breathing some fresh life into the subject. Perhaps only a writer with Perl’s extreme views and quirky taste could have pulled off such a feat.
That Manhattan followed Paris as the center of the art world is not exactly news, but Perl, a New York native, examines how the fabric and rhythms of life in and around New York, its material conditions, shaped the genesis, production and distribution of the art being made. The dynamism of such hothouse fixtures of mid-century New York City as the Cedar Tavern and the Club hinged on personal contacts among a wide variety of artists -- the presence of celebrated paint-slingers like de Kooning and Pollock was only part of the story. In fact, in Perl’s telling, everybody knew everybody. The art world was smaller then.
It is as if Perl, having concluded that "painterly painting" has received its due recognition, decided to focus on two other strains: quirkily expressive figuration and neo-plasticism, in search of the thesis and antithesis that dialectically yielded "Abstract Expressionism." Dialectics, dualisms and dichotomies are everywhere in the first sections of the book, grouped under the heading "The Climate of New York." Here, New York is portrayed as Contradiction Central: light versus dark, uptown versus downtown, frenzied versus poised, thunderous versus merely loud.
Hans Hofmann, whose charisma, authority and energy made him the most important teacher of the time, and among whose students are a great many now-canonical figures, is emblematic of the period for Perl, and is the subject of the introductory section of New Art City. In his own work, Hofmann rejected the single-minded pursuit of a signature style in favor of the freedom to explore a variety of avenues and idioms, from writhing, autographic mark-making to architectonic blocks of unbroken color. This multiplicity of pictorial possibilities, and the dialectical process by which new, hard-won artistic sensibilities are formed, is a major theme.
As a writer, Perl is often vivid, if sometimes a little windy (even when he’s not lambasting an artist, which he does with comparative restraint in New Art City). In an excellent remark on Willem de Kooning’s "aura of emotional disclosure," he notes that "this artist’s equivocations about how much he was willing to tell were something that, in typical New York fashion, he laid bare in every inch of every canvas."
In a section called "The Philosopher King," de Kooning receives the royal treatment he is due, including a consideration of the influence on his work of the 17th-century Le Nain brothers, less storied than that of Ingres. Perl also strains to include unfashionable figures like Alfred Russell, Earl Kerkham, and the Neo-Romantic Pavel Tchelitchew. Such artists as these may have loomed large at the time, but today they are largely of interest to their collectors and their heirs. Still, the inclusion of minor characters of uncommon interest gives his retelling its individuality.
While Perl does not drastically refigure who was fundamental to art history -- for example, it comes as no surprise that he counts Delacroix and Soutine among the Romantic "heroes" of the day -- how can we trust a guide who cannot, or will not, discern that Russell’s The Fall, a roiling, melodramatic vortex of tumbling, classically garbed bodies, with horses, is a bad painting, suited though it may be to illustrate his argument? Or one who characterizes the lightweight Loren MacIver, a painter of child-like, soft-focus semi-abstractions of city life, as "one of America’s uncategorizable major talents"? Typically seen as a central player in the 1950s and ‘60s, Robert Motherwell is peripheral here. And Perl misses an opportunity to rectify the inexplicably languishing reputation of the late, great Milton Resnick. Here is one painter, after all, who personified Perl’s injunction that artists should follow their intuitive impulses, come what may. (An exhibition of Resnick’s late work opens mid-December at the New York Studio School.)
Second-generation Abstract Expressionism has been thought of as a kind of sorting-out period, a regrouping wherein the debris from the explosive experimentation of the post-war years was sifted through for salvageable material to build on. Perl refers to a "Silver Age," referring not only to the Tenth Street gallery scene but also to rural outposts that might plausibly claim to be extensions of New York, like Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the emergent artists’ haven on the East End of Long Island.
Using Monet’s Water Lilies (which the Museum of Modern Art acquired in 1955) as a touchstone, a section called "Pastorals" deals with the New York artists’ perceptual experience of the natural world as a source of imagery, and more broadly, their relation to the history of pre-Cubist art in a post-Cubist time. Here, Louis Finkelstein’s Abstract Impressionism is aired, as are the dissimilar paintings of Joan Mitchell and Nell Blaine, whose work is rooted in the landscape.
Nearly 30 pages on Joseph Cornell, in a central section called "A Grand Collage," does not explain why this artist is so well-loved (his gauzy juxtapositions of cinematically derived indicators of the Old World, which evidently strike a chord with so many, have always seemed like kitsch to me). Perl struggles to connect Cornell’s insular oeuvre, famously cobbled together in his mother’s house in Queens, to any context, except to characterize him as a practitioner of collage, a sprawling category. But the Constructivist tradition finds its hero in David Smith, whose Terminal Iron Works occupied space on the Brooklyn waterfront for nine years before the artist moved upstate in 1940. About the mercurial sculptor, Perl writes, "There was a paradoxical lightness about even Smith’s largest works, no doubt because the weight of style had been rejected."
Perl traces the lineage of Dada, from Marcel Duchamp (resident in New York intermittently from 1920) through Rauschenberg and Johns to Lichtenstein and Warhol -- a distinctly downward trend, in Perl’s view, terminating with "whatever-the-market-will-bear nihilists," whose apotheosis was the 1962 "New Realists" show at Sidney Janis Gallery. This section of the book Perl lets loose on a favorite topic: the entertainment-oriented public versus the reflective private domains of art, and their increasingly adversarial relationship.
"The Artist and the Public" deals with institutional structures that came into being, or modified their mission, in response to the escalating audiences for the arts in New York City: Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim, MoMA itself. The growing affluence of the art community in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s forced a redefinition of "success." The author describes the emergence of Frank Stella, whose radical black stripe paintings were included in "Sixteen Americans," at MoMA in 1959, when the artist was 23 years old.
He attributes Stella’s dizzyingly rapid rise to institutional enthusiasm for work that, rather than plumbing the past, anticipated the future by "taking another clever step." (In the Perl lexicon, "clever" is a strong pejorative.) Shortly thereafter, the public’s spontaneous enthusiasm for Pop artists, whom Henry Geldzahler called "The New American ‘Sign Painters’," threatened the relevance of the critics, who, Perl maintains, were at first generally averse to it. As if in reaction to glib, facile Pop, the high-minded New York Studio School was established in the mid 1960s by Mercedes Matter and several of her colleagues.
It is precisely this sense of cause and effect, of ebb and flow, of events precipitating other events -- this dialectic, as Perl repeatedly terms it -- that gives New Art City its considerable narrative momentum and makes it a compelling read. In this artist-centric view, sources are esteemed in proportion to their influence upon the studio and bar talk of the day. Throughout the book, Perl quotes extensively from a number of articulate artist-writers, like John Graham and Sidney Tillim, and cites the fiction, philosophy and magazines, large and small, that influenced the debates.
The final section, "The Empirical Imagination," daringly pairs Donald Judd and Fairfield Porter, two very different artists who were also fine critics with surprisingly broad tastes. Both rooted their work in "the romance of honesty," meaning they rejected Abstract Expressionist romanticism and rhetoric and rose above the ironies of Pop, instead insisting on the physical reality of the materials they so differently dealt with. And they had in common a love of New York, believing that the self-evident, insistent realness of the place thwarted sentimentality, an enemy of art.
As Perl has it, Porter and Judd also unswervingly followed their own intuitions to develop their distinct voices -- which may be art history as applied esthetic ideology. Nostalgia for a less glitzy era pervades New Art City, and the reader is advised to keep the author’s biases well in mind. As to much of the art of our own time, Perl’s antithetical criticism is so stern, and so limiting, as to guarantee his marginal status. But then, as his nemesis, Jerry Saltz, has said, "Art is not about getting along."
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn.