'A Man Named Jed'
a review of 'New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century,' by Jed Perl (Knopf, 656 pp., $35)

by James Panero

THE last time I saw Jed Perl, he was bounding down the long ramp of New York's Guggenheim Museum, just as I was hoofing it up. The occasion was the press preview for "David Smith: A Centennial." In my bag, I happened to be carrying Perl's massive new book, New Art City: a Sisyphean labor of a read, the type of book you curse for its length as you turn the page for more. Hauling it up the endless spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright's museum, I found the moment appropriately poetic.

"Love the book, Jed," I panted.

"Ten years of work," he smiled, shifting down to second gear. "And if you see me dead in the street, you know whom to suspect ..." This was a reference to Perl's latest art-world polemic, which had just then appeared as a cover story in The New Republic. The suspect in question was the main target of the article: Glenn D. Lowry, the organization-man director of the Museum of Modern Art.

The exchange on the ramp reminded me that Perl's preferred mode of discourse--and, indeed, his best mode--has always been the confrontational. New Art City may be a sociological history, a reanimation of an art scene 50 years past, but its arguments muscle their way right on through to the world we read about in Perl's criticism for The New Republic. Just as at the birth of modernism Alois Riegl identified a Kunstwollen, or "will to form," here we find the Jedwollen--or Jed Perl's will to confront the orthodoxies of today's art establishment.

The book is freighted with confrontation. Beneath its breathy excitement, it presents what Perl's supporters might call an account of the decline and fall of the modernist empire--and what his detractors might well denounce as a conservative history of modernism. "Conservative" is admittedly a strange word to apply to Perl: While he cut his teeth at magazines such as Hilton Kramer's New Criterion (where I work), Perl is no political conservative. His conservatism--like that of some others on the political left--is an aesthetic one, concerned with the defense of modernism's constructive practices, and of argument and aesthetic discrimination as opposed to vacuous toleration and nihilism. Perl's war is against the art world's refusal to fight. From mid-century on, this passive-aggressive sentiment has crept in to become art's dominant disposition; in New Art City, Perl sets out to distill the combative qualities he sees as the essence of modernism.

The mid-century modernism discussed in this book is about challenge--and the book can itself be a challenge to its readers. Here one is presented with spiraling thematic chapters that describe the "living theater" of New York, where "everybody believed that to get together and talk was to participate in this play whose scenes and acts took place in real time and real space." Perl attempts "a searching description, one by one, of the dramatis personae, of the proliferation of actors, each with his or her particular sense of things," but in so doing he describes the 1950s in what seems like real time.

There are endless quotations, discursive asides, and milling hordes of personalities. In just a few pages of Chapter 6, "A Splendid Modesty," one encounters such cultural touchstones as Meyer Schapiro, Harold Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky, Thomas Hess, Lionel Trilling (on Henry James's Princess Casamassima), Mary McCarthy, Peggy Guggenheim, Dwight Macdonald, Krishnamurti, and Black Mountain College--where "the creative act was an act that grew and flourished amid a flurry of crosscurrents and competing ideas and ideals.... Willem and Elaine de Kooning were there, and Merce Cunningham and John Cage and the sculptor Richard Lippold and Buckminster Fuller." At times New Art City becomes what Randall Jarrell said of Andre Malraux's Voices of Silence: "not art history, exactly, but a kind of free fantasia on themes from the history of art."

In Perl's wear-you-down, last-man-talking, overly-hyphenated-and-alliterated prose style, the artists of the 1950s do not just "talk": They "talk and talk." Rather than "many artists," we read about "many, many artists." It's not "Picasso, Miro, and Matisse," but rather "Picasso and Miro and Matisse." Nor is this authorial flexing incidental to Perl's book: It goes to the heart of his esteem for modern art at its most muscular, chaotic, and sporting. As a writer Perl inhabits the qualities of his subject matter.

Arthur C. Danto remarked, in the magazine Bookforum, that Perl writes of the mid-century as if he "himself had lived that history--instead of the history he actually lived, wishing it had never happened." But this remark is unfair. Perl's history of modernism is the one we continue to live through, certainly in today's New York, if often in its negation. It also explains how, to take one example, the mid-century sculptures of the tough-minded David Smith can still take on what Louis Mumford called an "audacious failure" of a space for art--designed by another tough-headed modernist, Frank Lloyd Wright--and produce something new. In one of Smith's constructivist Cubi flexing up through the heart of the Guggenheim Museum, one finds a triumph that is very much of our own time: Smith's development as a sculptor, from surrealist to constructivist, demonstrates quite precisely the push-pull of modernism that Perl describes.

In New Art City, Perl picks up the story of art where his 1988 book Paris Without End left off. The title of art-world capital was New York's spoil following World War II, and with it came modernism's contradictory impulses of construction and annihilation. This tension developed at first, in what Perl calls the "paint-happy 1950s," into the vernacular of Abstract Expressionism. Here constructive forces produced two great urban academies for modern art, first the Hans Hofmann School and, later, the New York Studio School, which remains a presence in the city. "For Hofmann," writes Perl, "push-and-pull was a dream of what life could be, a dream simultaneously rooted in the dynamic relationship between one form and another, and in the dynamic relationship between a person and an environment." Perl extends the tension of the picture plane to include the theater of urban life.

The exposition of the "dynamic relationships," or "dialectics," comes two by two. But often the distinctions turn into hagiographic haze, as, for example, when Perl says that "the closer you look at the artistic thinking of the 1940s and 1950s, the more overlapping dialectical dynamics you will see--whether the dialectic involved [in] the relationship between the artist and tradition, or between the artist and the world beyond the studio, or the push-and-pull of forms in a particular painting or sculpture." Sometimes "overlapping dialectical dynamics" can be better understood as simply "stuff happening."

Perl's story heats up when modernism enters the 1960s. Commercialism, along with art's entry into the popular consciousness, brings Sears, Roebuck and other corporations into the art business. (The actor Vincent Price, strange as it may sound, was Sears's chief curator.) Meanwhile the Museum of Modern Art becomes "a kind of central committee for the cause of modern art," overriding the artistic individualism of the previous decade. "The museum that had become famous by reporting on the making of history," Perl writes, "was coming dangerously close to faking history." Similarly, in the Zen-like work of the young Frank Stella, "academic discourse brought about a new development in painting." Red-bloodedness was fast becoming passe, and "by 1960 the art world was entering its own Age of Criticism." In response, modernism's abstract legacy formed the "foundation for a newly forceful representational art." Empirical painters like Fairfield Porter, and the artists of New York's silver age of modernism, turned from the muscular heights of abstract expressionism to revel in the smaller glories of the domestic and everyday.

Yet even by the early 1950s, against the backdrop of the constructive developments taking place, New York had already been making way for the pernicious reintroduction of what Perl calls the "to-hell-with-everything gestures" of Dada, a minor movement from the early part of the century. This included the rediscovery of its slippery figurehead, Marcel Duchamp. "In my estimation," Duchamp told Newsweek in 1952, "there's no hope for the future of art at least for the next 25 years." The words proved prophetic; Duchamp's future came even sooner than expected. Perl writes: "The story of Duchamp's apotheosis in the decade leading up to his death in 1968 cannot be understood except in the context of the new audience for art.... Younger artists embraced Duchamp and even, sometimes, got to know him, beginning with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, those two cheerfully self-absorbed nihilists, who were quickly followed by a generation of whatever-the-market-will-bear nihilists, the generation of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein."

Duchamp's orthodox nihilism has insinuated its way into the contemporary art world, not by engaging the arguments of modernism, but by avoiding the conversation and mocking its terms of debate. In doing so, Dada's legacy has--as Thomas Hess wrote of Duchamp himself in 1965--"consolidated a position that is practically invulnerable to serious criticism."

Perl's account of the mid-20th-century art world is, in spite of its stylistic excesses, fascinating and instructive. In much of contemporary art, the push-and-pull forces of modernism have long since pulled away from the artistic struggle. New Art City is here to make sure we remember the fight.