Commentary Magazine


New Art City by Jed Perl

New Art City
by Jed Perl
Knopf. 641 pp. $35.00

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.”

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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.

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Perl does not subordinate these capsule accounts to a grand narrative, the way a military historian might digest a thousand separate and simultaneous actions into a single sweeping account of a battle. For him, it is the individual act—the creation of a discrete painting or sculpture—that is meaningful. This decision to accord lengthy treatment to individual artists, many of whom had long careers, cannot help blunting the imperative of chronology, which is the dramatic essence of history, but Perl does nevertheless achieve a kind of cumulative momentum. And he is quite good at making a 50-year-old canvas by Philip Guston or Ad Reinhardt seem urgent and vital.

Trained as a painter, and steeped in the deliberations that take place in front of a blank canvas, Perl brings a great empathy to these treatments. His own taste is strictly formalist—that is, he values art in which the principal aesthetic interest is to be found on the canvas itself, in its forms and colors, and not in the story it tells or the moral it teaches, or (more likely today) the scandal it prompts. Within the confines of this formalism, his tastes are omnivorous enough to accept both minimalist abstraction and photorealism, but they are not without limits.

In particular, Perl turns a cold shoulder to art not created in the studio, or without the investment of deep private feeling. He has little sympathy for Pop Art, especially the kind that appropriates graphic imagery in which the artist has no emotional investment; he has still less sympathy for conceptual art, where there is no form at all. This is another strength of the book, and a welcome corrective to histories that view the period through the lens either of theory or of contemporary critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Perl understands that most aesthetic discoveries lie in the tactile rather than the literary realm.

On the other hand, Perl has a great weakness for artists who can write, and who use words carefully. The inarticulate by temperament (Pollock) or by strategy (Warhol) get short shrift here; quotable artist-critics like Reinhardt, Fairfield Porter, or Donald Judd are accorded generous treatment. This produces some oddities, as when Pollock occupies less space than Mercedes Matter, the founder of the New York Studio School.

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No doubt aware that his episodic approach needed some sort of overarching structure, Perl has settled on the organizing idea of New York itself—its forms, textures, and social life, and the responses of artists to these. As a framework, this falls short, and is also something of an anachronism. Manhattan and modernism may have been synonymous in the 1920′s, when artists reacted directly to the scale and sensory barrage of the modern city. But by the 1950′s, in a New York chastened by war and Depression, the city was no longer the euphoric place it had been, and the meaning of both Manhattan and modernism had become fractured. The loss of industry was already in evidence, and the lower-Manhattan quarters into which painters poured themselves were somewhat shabby and seedy. (It was the gradual erosion of manufacturing jobs, particularly in textiles, that permitted them their affordable lofts in the first place.) Perl, who is so good at reading the nuances of painting, is rather less successful when it comes to reading the city.

The merit of New Art City lies in its depth and exquisite detail, its freedom from tendentiousness, and its refusal to subordinate the art it examines to any larger moral or narrative. But this also deprives it of the continuities necessary in a large book, and of any rising or falling action. As with a boisterous and good-humored party, one can enter at any point to a warm reception, but one can leave just as easily. In the end, New Art City remains the work of an exceptionally gifted miniaturist, a handful of pearls without the string.

It has taken a half-century to shake off the hagiography that greeted the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, and that ever since then has distorted the history of this epoch. Only recently has it become possible to adjust the air pressure in several of the more inflated reputations, especially that of Pollock, whose star has fallen as de Kooning’s has risen. One can therefore understand why Perl steers clear of the wild bets that were once placed on Abstract Expressionism.

But some sort of retrospective assessment is required, if only by the radically different course art has taken in the intervening years. If the New York School succeeded so completely in banishing narrative, politics, and recognizable subject matter from art, why did these come rushing back in the next decade, remaining permanent fixtures to this day? Was it the sudden and unprecedented celebrity of a figure like Pollock—capering about his studio, flinging paint with effortless abandon—that paved the way for today’s culture of instantaneous and unearned celebrity? A larger and more spacious evaluation of the New York School is still wanting. When it is written, Perl’s wry and whimsical tour of the studios will supply a welcome building block.

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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)




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