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In search of the Modern

Critic Jed Perl sees the essence of the New York art world between the 1940s and the '70s in merging, colliding stories. Retracing that history by cab and foot becomes an emblematic journey

October 16, 2005|Allan M. Jalon | Special to The Times

New York — WE'RE making our way to the Museum of Modern Art, the famously contrarian critic Jed Perl and I, and it's not going well. We're in a cab, stuck in extra-dense Midtown traffic. He rearranges his long body on the cramped back seat and sighs again about how tired he is after his "all-consuming, exhausting" 12-year odyssey to finish "New Art City," his 557-page epic about how the art world of New York coalesced and shimmered to life between the 1940s and 1970s.

Perl is also "floating," he says, on a rising wave of early praise from some discriminating readers. The magazine ARTnews, which served as an important witness to the decades he writes about, predicts the book will "stand as the definitive volume on this hectic and fertile period."

Even Arthur Danto, a philosopher-art critic with a more accepting aesthetic temperament than Perl's, overcomes his feeling that Perl tends to view the past as brighter than the present and extends a respectful welcome to "New Art City" in the new issue of Bookforum, calling it a "fascinating narrative" marked by "informed admiration and critical generosity."

Through the book's pages pour artists, critics, dealers, museum curators, museum-goers and the views Perl has intently constructed of them, drawing on archival materials, interviews and the old books and art catalogs he's collected over the years. Most important, perhaps, are his own responses to art, people and institutions. The book -- its full title is "New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century" -- is essentially a book of ideas, a critic's analytical meditation on how and why he thinks cultural history evolved as it did.

There are, of course, famous names like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock (Perl devotes an admiring sub-chapter called "The Philosopher King" to the former and downgrades the latter to a heroic historical icon with a "fine-tuned, rather small lyrical gift"), Andy Warhol (debunked as part of "a generation of whatever-the-market-will-bear nihilists"), Mark Rothko and Joseph Cornell.

These emerge next to lesser-known figures such as Nell Blaine and Earl Kerkam, painters who defied the trend toward abstraction or found ways to negotiate between its influence and representational painting. Perl embraces these lives with a clear determination to see none as marginal.

"I wanted to write a history where the usual suspects were there, but all these other people were there too," he says. That was the impulse behind the project he started imagining in the 1970s as an alternative to books that lacked the fully textured treatment that he sought.

"Going to the Modern" is the title of a linchpin section, a longish sub-chapter that explores the museum as a hub for competing, combining forces. Perl describes how the museum balanced the visual claims of artists who gave Modernism its language in Europe and the Americans who expanded it with their myriad individualities.

Turning art-world sociologist, he tells how the Modern cultivated a middle-class audience for downtown art.

Page through the book and you'll come upon 325 photographs, an unusually high number for such a volume. They form a sort of book within a book of pictures and are carefully correlated to the text, so that "Going to the Modern," for example, features a picture of people crowding the lobby of the Modern in the 1950s.

The recently rebuilt museum has been a central target for Perl's severe judgments ("tantrums of critical negativity," Danto calls them) in his writings as longtime art critic for the New Republic. As warmly as he speaks about the art-focused "intimacy" of the old Modern, he views the museum today as an embodiment of an increasingly commercialized art world.

But the Modern is the first stop on our tightly scheduled tour of places that Perl visits in the book. It winds past a city street corner at 12th Street and Broadway, where Fairfield Porter, a favorite of Perl's, used to paint and moves on to the austere studio-loft of sculptor Donald Judd, who appears together with Porter near the close of the book.

"The reason for ending the book with Judd [a Minimalist] and Porter [a representational painter] is a way to get over those very strict lines that people have drawn," says Perl. "The purpose is not to uphold representation over abstraction but to create a more fluid sense of the situation."

Bridging dichotomies is the book's over-arching method, making a map of contrasts across which Perl travels like a messenger. He relentlessly resorts to a theory associated with the German philosopher Hegel, that historical progress is basically "dialectical," a series of upheavals of conflict and synthesis.

New York, we are told in "New Art City," is a city where people experience their individuality "in terms of tensions and oppositions, in terms of a constant accretion of variegated, often dissonant impressions."

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