New Art City by Jed Perl
In a healthy art world, the most precious asset of a critic is his eye; in an unhealthy one it is his probity. Of course, no critic is completely disinterested, and all are subject to external pressure, even if merely in the form of an impulse to be agreeable to one’s fellows. But when academic authority turns sclerotic and artists suffer from collective demoralization, or when an aesthetic movement has spent its force and hardened into platitude, there is little left to offset the influences and blandishments that regularly distort critical judgment. Such is the case today, when, for example, Matthew Barney—whose Cremaster Cycle is a seven-and-a-half-hour video phantasmagoria named after a muscle in the male sexual organ—can be hailed in the New York Times as the “the most important American artist of his generation.” One who has maintained his probity in an era of diminished art and inflated reputations is Jed Perl, since 1994 the art critic of the New Republic. Perl does not suffer fools gladly: for him, Barney is but a purveyor of “phony-baloney mytho-poetic movies, accompanied by dumpster loads of junk from some godforsaken gymnasium of the imagination.” Nor does he hesitate to ignore a celebrity altogether: asked to do a well-placed piece on the photographer Cindy Sherman, he refused even to write a negative review: “Sherman’s notoriety was basically a public-relations gambit, and I didn’t want to become part of the PR.” With New Art City, an epic treatment of New York’s rise to the international capital of art during the post-World War II era, Perl now turns from criticism to history. It is a massive story, and a familiar one. On the eve of the war, a stream of refugees had arrived in New York who formed a kind of government-in-exile of European modernism. Out of a tumult of forces—the trauma of war; the insights of Freud and Jung; a collective rejection of the agitprop art of the 1930’s—there arose the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, including such luminaries as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. To be sure, cultural power customarily follows financial power. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that postwar New York should have assumed the preeminence that Paris had enjoyed in 1900, or Rome in 1600. But what was remarkable was that a country with such a long record of philistine indifference to visual culture could move in a single generation from art’s provincial periphery to its very epicenter. This story is generally told in one of two ways, the first of which is to trace the pedigree of ideas. Abstract Expressionism drew on the longstanding modernist interest in formal and abstract structure, which in painting culminated in the Cubism of Braque and Picasso; it also drew on the lessons of Surrealism, which sought a psychologically authentic art, liberated from all conscious control and moral judgment. In Europe, these were entirely different and implacably hostile systems of thought, but in the United States—where artists inevitably pried styles away from their accompanying ideological baggage—the two movements merged to form an art that was both non-representational and psychologically intense. The second way is to write an institutional history, tracing the marketing tactics of art galleries and the exhibiting and purchasing policies of museums. In combination, these form a wary minuet that can suddenly turn into a frenzied whirl, as they did in New York in late 1962 when Pop Art suddenly flared into notoriety. Both types of history undergird the standard surveys of the period: William C. Seitz’s Abstract Expressionist Painting in America (1983) and Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (1976). Perl, however, has declined to write a book in which paintings and sculpture are invoked to illustrate a movement or a trend. Nor does he have much interest in the public lobe of the art world, the realm of marketing and glamor. His interest is rather in the private lobe, where dozens of individual painters and sculptors, laboring in the solitary outposts of their studios, struggle to give aesthetic expression to personal feeling. The bulk of this book thus comprises capsule essays on separate artists, discussing their biographies and personal styles and in each case analyzing a few characteristic works. The names one would expect to find are all here—abstract artists like Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, and Kline, and Pop artists like Jasper Johns and Alex Katz—but so are many others, including such relative obscurities as Leland Bell, Earl Kerkam, and the collagist known simply as Jess.
About the Author
Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)