In a querulous, sometimes hostile review of a 1987 exhibition on Abstract Expressionism at the Albright-Knox (collected here), Jed Perl wrote one sentence that stands out from among his objections and faint praise and can almost serve as a key to his most recent book, New Art City:
The Abstract Expressionist paintings - with their phlegmatic blacks and whites, their lowering grays and blues - represent the spirit of a city that no longer really exists: a city of workingmen and manufacturers, of row houses and tenements, a place of rough, brash emotions.
Perl's latest work seeks to trace out the connections between New York City, its cultural and artistic life, and the role the metropolis played, whether as muse or as crucible, for the artists of mid-twentieth century. I've already linked to John Updike's review of the book and expressed my broad agreement with his assessment, so let's turn to a few specific issues.
As the subtitle implies, Perl takes not so much a narrative approach to the postwar New York artworld as he treats it as a field, in a roughly synchronic fashion. Obviously there is a progression from the '40's to the '60's and beyond, but one so slow that relationships between generations of artists, galleries, intellectuals, and trends potentially can be mapped in a rich, dense fashion. It's a sound idea, not only because it gets away from evolutionary models that Perl distrusts, but because it offers a greater possibility of recreating the texture of the time and revealing new points of view. Early on, he goes so far as to promise a "geography" of the Manhattan art world. For those not convinced by his efforts, the question becomes not so much the method as the cartographer's perhaps unavoidable distortions.
Updike called Perl's "long trek" a "wearying" one, and I'm afraid I have to agree, at least to a point. Most of the first half of the book worries over the years of the late forties and early fifties in what feels like real time. Much to my surprise, a great deal of these pages are not the sort of close attention to paintings I had expected but a sort of intellectual history of Abstract Expressionism, focusing on the influence, for instance, dialectical thinking, or Robert Goldwater's study of Riegl and the Kunstwollen, had on the ideas and practices of New York artists. At times it works, as in Perl's analysis of the relationship between photography, the look of the city, the familiarity of Hegelian modes to artists who came up through the '30's, and black and white paintings. At other times . . . well, let me just say that long-time readers of this site should consider what it means if I was bored by the armchair philosophizin'. Particularly problematic is that Perl's conception of dialectics seems almost endless reflexive: one tires of spinning the wheels (Updike's remarks on Perl's prose are to the point here.) To be sure, the second half of the book is more focused, perhaps in keeping with Perl's final emphasis on the empiricism of Fairfield Porter and Donald Judd. It may be that this indicates simply a change from one style of philosophy to another, but it's a welcome one nonetheless, as is the focus on artworld institutions that precedes it.
I'm not happy to write this, but the pacing problem to which the above testifies seems of a piece with lax editing. At certain moments it feels like Perl is ready to linger over every book, every idea, every event that caused a ripple in the artworld of the day, regardless of ultimate significance. Sometimes, as postwar architects were then eagerly learning, less is more. The first time one reads of how the New York School painters felt toward Pavel Tchelitchew, it provides an insight into artworld dynamics of the day. The second and third times, not so much. Whatever one's opinion of Perl's book, it's clearly a labor of love; one simply wishes that it didn't so often feel labored.
I admit I am the last person who should criticize another's writing. There are a few irritating tics that Perl engages in, however, about which his editor really should have done something. It's the author's view, to pick the most egregious example, that American art of the fifties was essentially romantic. Fine. Wanting to say more, he further notes that it was a tough, apparently unsentimental sort of romanticism. Again, fine; they're a bunch of Humphrey Bogarts. Unfortunately he insists on repeatedly using the term "no-romantic romantic attitude" to describe this outlook, and that is unbearable. It is with real alarm that one reads late in the book that young artists of the '60's idealized their elders by "romanticizing the no-romantic romantic attitude." One can only be grateful that they did so forthrightly, so as to spare us any further regressions. This is not an isolated incident, I'm afraid, and Perl's editor did him a disservice by not finding a way to refine these passages. I'm sure I've done worse--but I'm not getting paid.
But enough quibbling, what of the substance? Perl's outlook on postwar American art bears superficial similarities to what some consider a conservative modernist outlook, but in truth is far quirkier, and in its own way, more radical. It may seem odd to discuss his new book again through reference to his Albright-Knox review, but a passage in it makes his project clear in a way that remains more implicit in New Art City:
The whole subject of Abstract Expressionism seems to wither beneath the mercilessness of the [scholarly] attention, or maybe all of this is a form of inattention. Surely there's too much busyness about the writing of essays, the gathering of bits of data. No one would dare doubt that Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, Newman, and a few others are the foundation upon which the glorious edifice of American art has been built. Perhaps, unconsciously, there's a sense among those who labor in the field that one shouldn't look too carefully at the works themselves. After all, if Abstract Expressionism turned out to be not quite all that has been claimed - if Pollock isn't the heir to Picasso - then the whole edifice of Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and Neo-Expressionism might begin to tumble down. We need Abstract Expressionism; it's our birthright, the key to our legitimacy.
The faint praise, doubts suggested even as taken back (or are they?), these are the tools with which Perl seeks to undermine the edifice of contemporary art. He seeks to relocate its roots: Abstract Expressionism is necessary for him, but not exemplary, or not in the way usually supposed. If the movement's heroes had created a classical moment in American modernism, one from which the developments he lists above were thought by some to inevitably follow by processes of reaction and historical necessity, he wants none of it. Writing sympathetically on John Ashbery's art criticism, Perl notes that
Ashbery did not reject the characterization of Abstract Expressionism as a high classical moment, as a Golden Age, so much as he gave his readers the impression that as a personal matter he would prefer to look elsewhere. He could not help but be conscious of the aftermath - of the movement's tendency to deteriorate into bombast and academicism. I'm not sure that Ashbery cares all that much about classical moments. Maybe they are something best left for the fathers to worry about, while the kids happily skate across the silvery frozen lake.
It's with those children, with Joan Mitchell, Nell Blaine, and others, the generation after the original Abstract Expressionists, that Perl is most at home, a Tibor de Nagy aesthetic. Frankly oriented to pleasure, focused on the painterly, the handmade, drawing on a living tradition not only of modern art but European (rarely American) painting--these are the qualities that Perl's "Silver Age" artists share. And their works are often truly, deeply enjoyable.
It was his tributes to these painters that led me, only partly as a joke, to imply that Perl's critical stance was one of decadence. The awareness of being late, after a classical moment, inheriting its legacy but choosing to explore sidepaths instead of reaching for new ground: Perl embraces these tendencies in his favored artists. It's understandable, but I'm not sure he should be so surprised that, given the situation, they got to some extent steamrollered by history. It's not just hip ironizing or academicism (Perl's hated errors) that laid them low. Phil Leider, to note one example, allegedly said that he would never champion a second generation. The charms found in domesticating an existing style may be real, but they are unlikely to be that in which the most lively response to a particular moment is found. Perl's desire to locate American painting in an essentially French tradition of painting, one stemming from the seventeenth century to the present day, makes him unusually sensitive to how at times painters respond to the art of the past. This virtue, sadly, marks his limit. Work that can't be so integrated, whether as a matter of style, sensibility, or media, he can't accept.
So an oddity of the book becomes how that which he praises in the opening chapters turns into what he most dislikes in the later ones. Having celebrated the dialectic, it's hard to argue against historical necessity, after all. Often Perl, unable or unwilling to accept the art that seized central stage from that which preferred, only lashes out against it, throwing out invective and disdain rather than trying to understand. It's not pretty, and not anything very original, so we needn't dwell on it. Only one point: I've noted before his antipathy to Morris Louis, so let me pick on one passage related to the artist to illustrate. Writing on Louis and other color field and early minimalist artists, Perl argues that
By now, certain artists were perhaps not so much acting in history as they were responding to popular demand, to what [Dwight] MacDonald, quoting Kierkegaard, called "a phantom, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embacing something which is nothing, a mirage - and that phantom is the public."
Is there anyone, no matter what their view of Louis's work, knowing anything of his life and career who could call that sentence something other than a libel? It is characteristic of Perl at his most reactive and weakest.
The book concludes with an extended discussion of Donald Judd and Fairfield Porter, who Perl sees as in their very different ways as embodying shared values that defined an empirical outlook that contrasted with the metaphysical concerns of Abstract Expressionism. Grounded in the reality of urban life and material form, these two seem to him to announce a new beginning, confident, sure, and open, after the struggles of midcentury. It's a pleasant thought, and I share Perl's enthusiasm for the work. His descriptions of the late cityscapes by Porter from the 1970's brought to my mind, however, the wan color of movies and tv shows from the time. It was the first moment while reading the book that I had a contemporary mental image of New York from the period discussed, even if one mostly drawn from the screen. I found myself humming the theme to "The Odd Couple" as I read. This is not meant as a criticism of the art or artists, but thirty years on, the beginnings of daylight New Art City points to in the early '70's seem faded. It's still beautiful, but far distant, New York as it was, only yesterday.