"New Art City" is, of course, New York City, the scene and in a variety of ways the subject of Jed Perl's engaging narrative of the history of New York art from, in his terms, its Golden Age in the 1940s to the end of its Silver Age in the '60s. The artists of both these ages are heroic figures in Perl's pantheon, and he writes about them with informed admiration and critical generosity. With one qualification, these attitudes, together with the historical schema of ages of decreasing luminosity, make this book a pendant to Perl's earlier Paris Without End—an equally engaging celebration of the capital of modern art after World War I, before it was replaced in this capacity by New Art City. Perl's qualification has to do with the crossover figure of Marcel Duchamp, about whose gifts and contributions he is ambivalent, though he is far from ambivalent about what he regards as the artist's baleful influence as a kind of serpent in the paradise that was New York before the emergence in the late '50s of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and the Pop art explosion they helped detonate. The age of Pop has no Hesiodic counterpart for Perl: Metallurgy knows no metal base enough to emblematize the degradation of art that took place under its auspices in the '60s. The contempt and sarcasm he marshals in writing about it here match the tantrums of critical negativity he now and again exhibits as art critic for The New Republic.
As for the artists, I incline to think more highly of those whom Perl demonizes than I do of many of the secondary heroes of his Silver Age (Alfred Russell, Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir, etc.), and I don't think this is entirely a matter of what philosophers once characterized as a disagreement in attitude, as against a disagreement in belief. But I do believe that Perl's animadversions, here and elsewhere, somewhat limit his ability to extend his narrative past the '60s and into the present—into what he would doubtless consider, with certain exemptions, an Age of Lead, if not worse. He is right to see in Rauschenberg and Johns a prolongation of Dada beliefs and attitudes well past the years that this movement is ordinarily allotted in standard histories of Modernism. The history of contemporary art, beginning in the '60s, has by and large seen the institutionalization of Dada, with Duchamp occupying the place that the Sage Kings did in the history of morals according to Confucius. Perl is arrested by his antipathies at the same moment of historical change that kept Greenberg from extending his critical intelligence into the '60s and beyond, regarding Duchamp and anyone working in the vein he mined as engaged in little more than what he disparaged as Novelty Art.
After reading Perl's section on Pop and the scene it engendered, I was pretty much prepared for a rant on the disgrace of contemporary art. Instead, he abruptly turns back and begins to deal with the kinds of figures with whom he is largely sympathetic, writing on what he calls "Teachers," meaning mainly Greenberg and Rosenberg, on both of whom he writes with balance and insight; and on Mercedes Matter and the Studio School, which undertook to preserve—or revive—the culture and metaphysics of studio painting propagated by Hans Hofmann and fervently believed in and practiced by the New York School and endlessly debated by the members of the Club and the habitués of the Cedar Tavern. Perl writes interestingly on Alfred Barr and the artistic politics of the Museum of Modern Art and its relationship to the evolving art history of the time. And he concludes the book with a protracted comparison of two artists of the Silver Age—Fairfield Porter and Donald Judd—both of whom he sees as artists dedicated to New Art City, as the matrix for New York Modernism and the artists who made it happen. Throughout, he uses the special geography of Manhattan—as a ready-made collage, for example—as a determinant of artistic vision in both ages of its florescence. His discussion of Joseph Cornell and the aesthetic geography of New York is exemplary.
The book ends with a lyrical coda:
Countless artists, working in their studios and talking about everything that they were doing and looking at everything that everybody else was doing, had pushed New York to the point where this was at last a city where painters and sculptors could take the metaphysics of art history for granted and pour all their energies into the specifics. New York, having found its place in the history of art, had left the artists with the glorious paradox of their individuality.
That might have been a true picture had the '60s never happened and the metaphysics of art history not come up for grabs when New Art City entered a new phase; it's still with us, leaving the era the book celebrates encapsulated in a history at which Perl barely casts a glance. The book is, then, a narrative of the encapsulated period that is the author's spiritual homeland. New Art City is the Land of Oz for those who, like Perl, are in love with "the smell of turpentine," a wonderful moment of aesthetic optimism, to which his book is a delicious Baedeker. It is a treasury of information about artists and their worlds, brightly if journalistically written, and unlike a survey of the same territory, were it done by an academic; it sees the landscape the way its natives—the artists and the intellectuals who lived the history—saw it. It has the vivacity of an eyewitness account, like Irving Sandler's autobiography of the early part of Perl's period, A Sweeper-Up After Artists. It is a fascinating narrative, written as if Perl himself had lived that history—instead of the history he actually lived, wishing it had never happened.
Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York.