New York Art 1950; When Manhattan Ruled the World of Art

Article excerpt


In the years immediately after World War II, New York City replaced Paris as the dominating center of the art world and the source of a succession of new forms like abstract expressionism, pop and minimalism. While the bare outlines of this story will be familiar from such sources as Tom Wolfe's "Painted Word," the movie "Pollock" or the penultimate chapters of your college art history textbook, what we have lacked is a book with a sense of the enormous intellectual and aesthetic exhilaration this period had for those who were part of it. There's also not been one that offers a description of the impressive range of their achievements.

Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic, whose previous works includes "Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I" has for over a decade carefully studied the written and visual record of this era, seemingly reading everything that anyone of note has written about it and looking again at all the art. In "New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century," he braids together the many strands of this complex story celebrating the "tough-minded aestheticism" of the age of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko when a rich array of individual talents set about redefining the grand old themes of art.

This book on the artists of the "New York School" begins with a great teacher, the "casually messianic" Hans Hofmann. Through his lectures and workshops at his school on 8th street in Manhattan and in Provincetown in the summers, he helped to shape the sensibilities of some of the most promising talents among the rising generation including Joan Mitchell, Robert De Niro, Sr. and Lee Krasner.

"A tough minded visionary who brought to New York the secrets of modern," Hofmann lived in Paris at the turn of the century, knew Picasso and Braque and had painted with Matisse. From these giants he learned that modern art is not an imitation of life but rather a reality created from the life inherent within the painter's medium itself. What made Hofmann a visionary was his belief that a painter can give form to "the most complex and ecstatic dimensions of human experience." What made him so tough minded was his insistence "that only by concentrating on the small practical things in the studio - by attending to the nitty-gritty, to the step by step construction of a painting or sculpture - would an artist ultimately discover the big truth, the grand ideas."

The fierce and feisty give and take of ideas which seems to have been a part of the life of New York for as long as anyone can remember turns out to have a special resonance in the artistic life of this period. For these were the years when the first wave of French philosophy hit American shores, and Mr. Perl shows how Manhattan was awash with ideas derived not only from existentialism's first prophets like Sartre and Camus but also from their sources in Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Marx. (In what is surely a deliberate omission he leaves out any reference to Freud.)

If New York artists of this period were passionately in quest of the "Big Truth" with a capital "T," they tended not to seek for it through the more standard intellectual channels such as attending lectures or reading books or even reading articles in the influential "little magazines" like Partisan Review which so happily distinguished this period. Rather they tended to "osmose" their ideas from exhibits in museums and galleries and from people with whom they would converse on the street, in coffee houses or at the bar in some saloon. Indeed, the great ideas of the late 1940s and '50s were "in the air" at such regular avant-garde hangouts as the Cedar Tavern or the Artists Club.

Frequenting such places one could inhale such concepts as "the sublime, the dialectic, the romantic, the heroic, the abstract, the empirical, the quotidian, the nihilistic" along with the secondhand smoke clouding the room. …