New Art City
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
656 pp., 35.00
Reviewed by Daniel A. Siedell
Heavenly Real Estate
When my taxi pulls up to my little midtown Manhattan hotel, I feel the wonderfully strange sensation of returning home, of returning to my neighborhood, a sensation that always is a surprise for one born, reared, and still living in Nebraska. But New York City is special to me. I can mark the last fifteen years of my life through my visits to Manhattan. Reading Jed Perl's New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century brought to the surface my own experiences in and of this city and caused me to reflect on the strong and abiding influence it has had on me as a student of art and as a disciple of Jesus. Perl's book reminded me that I too, in some strange way, have been shaped by this wonderful city.
New Art City focuses on the mid-century years, between 1948-1962. For a period commonly assumed by the cultural warriors on the Left as well as the Right to be conformist and reactionary, New York City at mid-century was a simmering cauldron of angst and creativity. And it continues to serve as a foundation for the writing and re-writing of the history of twentieth century art and culture in the U.S.
New Art City is unlike other recent books on the period that attempt to set the record straight, as it were, about the "true significance" of the period. It is not really a history so much as an homage to a place that played an important role in the stunning creative developments that continue to shape contemporary art and discourse. And Jed Perl should know a little something about the influence of New York City. Educated in New York, he is the art critic for The New Republic and writes occasionally for The New Criterion, The Partisan Review, The New York Times Book Review, and Modern Painters. New York is his city, his home; and the art made there is his art.
Perl's focus on Manhattan as an active participant in the drama of the mid-century cultural world coincides with how many of the artists and critics at mid-century regarded their specific geographical location as fundamental to their work, whether as painters, poets, or critics. Recent scholarship in ecology, geography, and sociology has confirmed their insight that place has a profound impact on art and ideas. In a 1954 essay entitled, "Tenth Street: A Geography of Modern Art," the critic Harold Rosenberg observed that the Tenth Street neighborhood circumscribed the world for the Abstract Expressionists and that most conversations among the artists had to do with real estate, not art, for living conditions were of the utmost significance. As individualistic as they were as artists, they still yearned to create and maintain communities that served as the primary context for their art and life. The virtue of New Art City is that it follows Rosenberg's lead and reveals the historical actors to be profoundly embodied, geographically contingent human persons, who were as influenced by the sidewalk cracks and chipped paint on a particular storefront they passed each day as they were by Picasso and Matisse.
New Art City deploys several metaphors with which to organize the experience of this period, and most of them have to do with suggesting tense juxtapositions. Perl writes of the dialectic between classic and romantic, the dynamic between the urban and the pastoral, and the metaphor of the collage, the visual medium of tense juxtapositions par excellence. Daily life in Manhattan itself was mediated almost sacramentally through the species of collaged experiences, juxtaposed next to other—often disparate—experiences. It is no wonder that their art, whether in Frank O'Hara's "hyper caffeinated" poetic spurts, Willem de Kooning's canvases, or even John Cage's "silent" compositions would bear the influence of a collage aesthetic.
Another chief virtue of Perl's book is his desire to rescue the lesser-known artists from history's dustbin. Perl observes, quite rightly, "Only when you look at what are too often described as the minor characters can you begin to understand the richness of the postwar scene." The mid-century art world is much more than a "context" or "background" for Jackson Pollock or other hard-living heroes. Perl celebrates the work of such lesser-known artists as Hans Hofmann, Earl Kerkam, Edwin Denby, Rudy Burckhardt, John Graham, Weldon Kees, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Conrad Marca-Relli. Since the early Sixties, critics and commentators have felt the urge to write and rewrite the history of this period. In this quest for the "historical" Abstract Expressionism, historians as well as critics have tended to find their own reflections in the well they peer into. And this is not such a bad thing, for there seems to be no limit to the narratives that can be formed from this period. In fact my own interest in this period has to do primarily with studying how critics and historians, from mid-century to the present, have interpreted the period and how those interpretations have been underwritten by contemporary art and critical discourse.
Although Perl is not intent on writing a history, he does produce a narrative that is intended to counter views which, to his mind, have exaggerated the influence of certain artists at mid-century. Working within a broadly neo-conservative context, Perl is deeply skeptical of the influence that the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, living in New York, exerted on the mid-century art world. He writes off the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and other "Pop" and "Neo-Dada" artists as merely "riffing" on Duchamp. Perl's assessment, echoed by the conservative and neo-conservative critics of the New Criterion circle, is not particularly original, nor is it particularly useful, except as a means to demonstrate a historical pedigree for the tripe they see masquerading as authentic contemporary art. For example, Perl's widely quoted screed against the painter John Currin is given historical legitimacy by his dismissal of Duchamp-Rauschenberg-Warhol.
But Perl's book is more than an attack on the influence of Duchamp. His interpretations of Joseph Cornell and Fairfield Porter are brilliant and insightful. In fact, his assessment of their work is well worth the price of this massive book. He brings all his themes to bear on their art and their lives. Indeed, it is in his wonderful interpretations of these two artists—figures far less characteristically "mid-century" than Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Clement Greenberg—that Perl's exceptional gifts as an art critic are most impressively on display.
Perl is entitled to his biases and his opinions, for criticism, if it is anything, should be, as Baudelaire insisted, "passionate, partisan, and political." The problem is that many Christian art writers whose criticism is grounded in worldview analysis find confirmation in Perl, Hilton Kramer, Roger Kimball, et al. that the contemporary art world is what they fear it is: a joke. I don't advocate not reading Perl and Kramer and Kimball and others of their school—on the contrary—but too many Christian commentators stop with them, take them as the "authoritative voices" in the contemporary art world. That these and other neo-con critics often regard themselves to be the defenders of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition merely confuses the issues. Although I vehemently disagree with his conclusions on this score, Perl's response to the Duchamp-Rauschenberg-Warhol aesthetic was shaped through his laborious engagement with their art. This cannot be said for most Christian commentators.
Rosenberg ended his essay on Tenth Street by predicting its future: "It will be swallowed in the yawn of a steam shovel. Its future is—an excavation." Interestingly, one of de Kooning's masterpieces, hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago, is entitled Excavation (1952). And we are back to the metaphors of geography. Perl's charming book is not a social history, it is a spatial history, a history of a period shaped by the aesthetics and poetics of New York City. I anticipate that some of the "wealth of nations" that will be on those ships from Tarshish to the New Jerusalem that the prophet Isaiah speaks of will have been produced at mid-century on Tenth Street.
Daniel A. Siedell is Curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a frequent contributor to Books & Culture. He is the editor of Weldon Kees and the Arts at Mid-century (Univ. of Nebraska Press) and is currently at work on An Excavation of Tenth Street: Essays in the Historiography of the New York School.
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John Updike reviewed the book in this week's New York Times Book Review. The Times also has the first chapter online.
The Los Angeles Times profiled Perl and discussed his book.
Other reviews of New Art City have appeared in The New Yorker, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Sun, Newsday.
Knopf has more information about the book.
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
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The Rich Are Different—and Not So Different—from Us | Think you're burned out on memoirs? Read this book. (June 28, 2005)
A Grief Observed | Exploring the valley of the shadow in two literary lives. (June 13, 2005)
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The Universal Language | If Latin died in our mouths, we'd just stop talking. (May 24, 2005)
At Home in the Dark | The first new book of poems in almost twenty years from Rod Jellema. (May 17, 2005)
"Taken Up in Glory" | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 10, 2005)
Making Believe | Bedtime stories for grown-ups. (May 03, 2005)
Looking for God on the Holy Mountain | A journey to Mount Athos. (Apr. 25, 2005)
The Words of the Word | Two sharply contrasting perspectives on Bible translation. (April 19, 2005)
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