New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century by Jed Perl. 641 pp. Vintage. $18.95 (paperback)
A renaissance took place during the 1950s in downtown Manhattan, when the abstract expressionists held sway. Jed Perl captures a period when artists painted and exhibited along 10th Street in Greenwich Village; drank at the Cedar Tavern; argued at their forum, The Club; and found success at uptown galleries and the Museum of Modern Art.
Younger painters came to New York to learn from older abstract artists and teachers such as Hans Hoffman and from each other. Painter Willem deKooning said that that New York was “really like a Byzantine city.” Perl describes the atmosphere: “Tenth Street… was a village within the metropolis, and artists and writers… could go for days and weeks without setting foot outside their own sometimes overstimulating neighborhood.”
Perl refers to the artists’ sense of individuality by referring to “the New York ‘No.’ ” They were part of a movement, but they refused “to accept any style… that had been thrust upon them.” These artistic rebels, then, were ambivalent about their eventual commercial success and new public roles. They worried about a loss of independence and wondered if the museums had more influence over the direction of modern art than they did.
Questions about commercialism did not bother the Pop artists who came along in the 1960s. In Andy Warhol’s paintings of celebrities, dollar bills and Campbell’s soup cans, we see not a celebration of American commercialism but a deadpan reflection. Painter Al Held spoke for others when he rejected the earlier painters’ subjectivity: “The Abstract Expressionists covered everything up with this sensibility and feeling…” For Held, there was to be “No spiritual overlay.”
A book of this breadth takes in more than Abstract Expressionism and Pop; there are realists, collagists, minimalists and assemblage sculptors, along with the influential critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Perl’s emphases are sometimes questionable; he treats Hoffman and deKooning in depth, while giving short shrift to Pollock, Rothko and Kline. The closing chapter on the empiricism of painter Fairfield Porter and minimalist sculptor Donald Judd seems too narrowly focused. These reservations, however, are set against the strength of this study as a whole; in New Art City, Jed Perl fully lives up to his ambitious goal, to depict the artistic excitement, crosscurrents and innovation that made New York the artistic capital of the world for two decades.