A comprehensive account of the New York art scene in the 1950s and ’60s.
The Manhattan-centric “heroic period” of American art here unfolds in novelistic detail. Notables of the New York School (Pollock, de Kooning, Warhol) sit side by side with smaller stars (Hans Hofmann, Philip Guston, Mercedes Matter, Fairfield Porter), and new insight is brought to each, with a blend of anecdote and idea that gives a real sense of the times. Excitement is palpable in the fierce individualism cultivated by seminal teacher Hofmann, who encouraged an anachronistic blend of new and old reflected in the attitudes and influences of the artists. Positing a predominant romanticism that was a conglomerate of “isms”—expressionism, surrealism, primitivism, existentialism, nihilism—what emerged was a fulminating scene where, as de Kooning asserted, “one idea is as good as the next.” Dialecticism governs the whole as Perl brings to light unlikely connections (Duchamp and Mondrian, Donald Judd and Paul Katz) and the impact of various mediums upon one another, such as dancer Merce Cunningham’s influence on the plastic arts. Himself a painter, New Republic art critic Perl eschews gossip in favor of analysis of the artists’ life and work, including who they were reading (Sartre, Balzac, B.H. Friedman) and where they congregated (Cedar Tavern, the Artist’s Club), as well as the influence of the city itself—he devotes a whole chapter to its geography. It’s a revealing journey, encompassing the charged commingling of artists absorbed in largely solitary studio efforts during modernism’s tail end, to Pop art’s fixation on reproduction, consumerism and celebrity.
Art history as it should be: neither star-struck nor pretentious, and full of heart.