How New York City Changed the Course of Art History ; the Great Artists of the Mid-20th Century and the City That Nurtured Them

Article excerpt

At the end of World War II, the creative center of the art world moved from Paris to New York City. One scholar, accurately if grandiloquently, called the era that followed, "The Triumph of American Painting."

Many of the artists who founded what became known as the "New York School" were larger-than-life characters like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They lived hard, triumphed over years of adversity, and changed the course of art history.

Americans have long been fascinated by these artists, their lives, and their accomplishments and have an insatiable appetite for books, articles, movies, and exhibitions about them.

Jed Perl, the art critic for The New Republic for the past decade, is the latest writer to tackle this topic. New Art City focuses on the 15-year period that began with de Kooning's first one- man show in 1958 and ended with the emergence of Andy Warhol and the establishment of Pop Art.

Perl's central theme is that the character and spirit of New York City - its passion, size, intensity, and contradictions - shaped the art that emerged. The narrative ranges from solitary studios to the places where artists gathered (like the Cedar Tavern and the Artist's Club) to the critics and magazines that chronicled the goings-on and to the dealers who sold the work.

But this is much more than a chronological history. Perl is, first and foremost, a critic, and he is not shy in expressing his opinions.

For example, his disdain for Pop Art is unmistakable while his affection for Hans Hoffman is unreserved. And who knows if the obscure Louis Matthiasdottir's still lifes and portraits are "among the essential achievements of American art in the 1970s and 1980s?" Perl thinks so and challenges the reader to disagree.

Perl argues that a wide range of artistic styles - including representational art - were common throughout the era. While most of the public attention today is focused on a small number of very well known artists, there were others - like Mercedes Matter, Fairfield Porter, John Graham, Nell Blaine, Burgoyne Diller, Alex Katz, and Earl Ketcham - whose work was first rate but, because they were out of the mainstream, is less well known today. …