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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 6th, 2005


 

New Art City

by Jed Perl

Passion in Fashion

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

This almost impossibly rich book evokes, explores, illuminates, and analyzes the Manhattan art world of the 1940s through the early 1960s, a period that famously saw the "triumph of American painting" and New York's concomitant rise to supremacy as the world's artistic capital. Perl's scintillating panorama leads readers from creaky wooden-floored downtown lofts to the International Style buildings that transformed Park Avenue into a sleek canyon, and from the bohemian-utilitarian Cedar Tavern to the swank-modernist Grill Room of the Four Seasons. He takes in the art dealers, the curators, and the critics who oxygenated artistic life; developments in theater, dance, music, film, philosophy, and poetry that influenced and were influenced by the artists and their work; and the frenetic cultural and social whirl that MOMA incessantly stirred. And he interweaves astute pen portraits of artists both celebrated and neglected (Hans Hofmann, de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko, but also Nell Blaine, Burgoyne Diller, and Earl Kerkam) with penetrating, clear-eyed, and jargon-free assessments of their creations (see especially his brilliant appraisal of the contrasting astringencies of Donald Judd and Fairfield Porter) and with keen and sympathetic analysis of the ideas that animated them. Perl, The New Republic's art critic, is unerringly alert throughout to the broad economic, commercial, social, intellectual, and cultural forces that engendered, channeled, impinged upon, and ultimately vitiated the Manhattan art scene. Dore Ashton's discerning and graceful 1973 book, The New York School, took a similarly sweeping and ambitious approach; Perl's work—the sort of grand marriage of criticism, history, and biography that Edmund Wilson achieved in his finest books—is in most ways an even greater accomplishment. The book can sometimes be hard going; Perl is a lucid and often witty writer, but he's frequently grappling with complex and dizzying ideas. The effort is worth it. New Art City is a thrilling achievement.


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