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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