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.