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Jed Perl Has Art Smarts ? His Hygiene is Above Reproach, Too

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century
Jed Perl
Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

?Panoramic? is a word that pops up in a couple of the inside-jacket blurbs for Jed Perl?s book about art in New York at mid-century. ?Big? is what they really mean, I think ? big, and crammed with detail, and a bit too much to take in all at once.

Contentious graduate students will find much to admire here, because Perl?s habit of pulling lesser figures from the shadows and touting them as ?overlooked? is the stuff of which heated classroom arguments, masters theses, and, sometimes, careers are made. Hans Hoffman was much more influential than you thought ? and so was his wife, Miz, whom Perl recreates for us in brief, indelible sketches, so that the reader can absolutely picture her: an aging bohemian, forever making dry remarks in her rough, accented English, holding a cigarette up around ear level, as if wading through a flood. (But didn?t Elaine DeKooning also make such remarks while holding her cigarette in much the same way? Perhaps all muses do this).

Knowing that an art movement is only as good as the popular songs, pamphlets, political slogans, cocktail parties, and loving muses that surrounded it, Perl brings his treatment of the culture at large around the same extra turn: Blake, of course, we all know that ? but what about Melville? Perl takes the reader impulsively by the hand and rushes through this breathless paragraph:

?Melville?s genius for giving an idiosyncratic vision heroic proportions excited many artists. In Provincetown in 1944, (Jackson) Pollock and Lee Krasner may have been among a group that listened to Tennessee Williams?s friend Joe Hazan read passages from Moby-Dick by lamplight. The painter William Baziotes loved to quote a line of Ishmael?s about ?a damp drizzly November in my soul.? And another painter, Paul Jenkins, said of Pollock that meeting him ?was an assault on the moral senses because in a frontal attack he would question your very being. I think of him somewhat like Melville?s Billy Budd.? Pollock?s 1943 Pasipha? had originally been titled Moby-Dick. And Rosenberg, in 1952? wrote that ?the American vanguard painter took to the white expanse of the canvas as Melville?s Ishmael took to the sea.?

Whew! With all that detail, both fanciful and specific, combined with the dropping of a few names you feel you ought to look up at once if you can?t place the face, you could almost miss the ?may have been? that kicks it all off. And if art history is going to be so much more fun as a word-association game, well, it?s only a few lateral leaps from Melville?s drizzly November of the soul to Guns n? Roses? November Rain ? and there you are: your pop culture-infused art history thesis just wrote itself.

But, to his credit, Perl?s leaps aren?t nearly as far-fetched as that last one (for which your humble reviewer must claim credit). He has written a big art history book about a relatively small slice of art history, and so has earned the luxury of packing it as full of details as he likes. He connects a great many dots ? artists, writers, teachers, curators, critics; their favorite bars to get plastered in, and their second- and third-favorite bars too ? in a field that looks increasingly vast as he proceeds through it. And if Perl seems at times to be herding us a little too quickly from name to name, connection to connection, obscure side movement to obscure side movement, he does so with a charming enthusiasm that makes the most eager grad student look like a slacker.

As I was curled up with this weighty volume, Prentice Hall announced a major renovation of ?Janson,? as History of Art by H.W. Janson, the old warhorse of an art history survey book, is fondly known. The changes include more women artists, more minority artists, and a general backing away from the implication that there is anything so crass as a canon of great works and icons that every student of art history should know. But of course, there are great works and icons in the history of art ? and if the current approach to history makes it difficult to catalog them broadly, then we are lucky to have books like Perl?s, which moves us stubbornly in the direction of specifics.


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