In search of the Modern

Special to The Times

WE’RE making our way to the Museum of Modern Art, the famously contrarian critic Jed Perl and I, and it’s not going well. We’re in a cab, stuck in extra-dense Midtown traffic. He rearranges his long body on the cramped back seat and sighs again about how tired he is after his “all-consuming, exhausting” 12-year odyssey to finish “New Art City,” his 557-page epic about how the art world of New York coalesced and shimmered to life between the 1940s and 1970s.

Perl is also “floating,” he says, on a rising wave of early praise from some discriminating readers. The magazine ARTnews, which served as an important witness to the decades he writes about, predicts the book will “stand as the definitive volume on this hectic and fertile period.”

Even Arthur Danto, a philosopher-art critic with a more accepting aesthetic temperament than Perl’s, overcomes his feeling that Perl tends to view the past as brighter than the present and extends a respectful welcome to “New Art City” in the new issue of Bookforum, calling it a “fascinating narrative” marked by “informed admiration and critical generosity.”


Through the book’s pages pour artists, critics, dealers, museum curators, museum-goers and the views Perl has intently constructed of them, drawing on archival materials, interviews and the old books and art catalogs he’s collected over the years. Most important, perhaps, are his own responses to art, people and institutions. The book -- its full title is “New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century” -- is essentially a book of ideas, a critic’s analytical meditation on how and why he thinks cultural history evolved as it did.

There are, of course, famous names like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock (Perl devotes an admiring sub-chapter called “The Philosopher King” to the former and downgrades the latter to a heroic historical icon with a “fine-tuned, rather small lyrical gift”), Andy Warhol (debunked as part of “a generation of whatever-the-market-will-bear nihilists”), Mark Rothko and Joseph Cornell.

These emerge next to lesser-known figures such as Nell Blaine and Earl Kerkam, painters who defied the trend toward abstraction or found ways to negotiate between its influence and representational painting. Perl embraces these lives with a clear determination to see none as marginal.

“I wanted to write a history where the usual suspects were there, but all these other people were there too,” he says. That was the impulse behind the project he started imagining in the 1970s as an alternative to books that lacked the fully textured treatment that he sought.

“Going to the Modern” is the title of a linchpin section, a longish sub-chapter that explores the museum as a hub for competing, combining forces. Perl describes how the museum balanced the visual claims of artists who gave Modernism its language in Europe and the Americans who expanded it with their myriad individualities.

Turning art-world sociologist, he tells how the Modern cultivated a middle-class audience for downtown art.

Page through the book and you’ll come upon 325 photographs, an unusually high number for such a volume. They form a sort of book within a book of pictures and are carefully correlated to the text, so that “Going to the Modern,” for example, features a picture of people crowding the lobby of the Modern in the 1950s.

The recently rebuilt museum has been a central target for Perl’s severe judgments (“tantrums of critical negativity,” Danto calls them) in his writings as longtime art critic for the New Republic. As warmly as he speaks about the art-focused “intimacy” of the old Modern, he views the museum today as an embodiment of an increasingly commercialized art world.

But the Modern is the first stop on our tightly scheduled tour of places that Perl visits in the book. It winds past a city street corner at 12th Street and Broadway, where Fairfield Porter, a favorite of Perl’s, used to paint and moves on to the austere studio-loft of sculptor Donald Judd, who appears together with Porter near the close of the book.

“The reason for ending the book with Judd [a Minimalist] and Porter [a representational painter] is a way to get over those very strict lines that people have drawn,” says Perl. “The purpose is not to uphold representation over abstraction but to create a more fluid sense of the situation.”

Bridging dichotomies is the book’s over-arching method, making a map of contrasts across which Perl travels like a messenger. He relentlessly resorts to a theory associated with the German philosopher Hegel, that historical progress is basically “dialectical,” a series of upheavals of conflict and synthesis.

New York, we are told in “New Art City,” is a city where people experience their individuality “in terms of tensions and oppositions, in terms of a constant accretion of variegated, often dissonant impressions.”

The day’s plan, after the Modern, if we ever get to the Modern, is to stroll across 8th Street to Washington Square Park, where the book begins with an encounter between the German emigre painter-teacher Hans Hofmann -- Perl gives his influence a weight it’s never quite had before -- and the young American painter Joan Mitchell. We’re also to visit the National Academy Museum, which featured a show of work by Jean Helion, a French painter of both abstract and figurative works, who is one of the many more obscure figures Perl writes passionately about in “New Art City.”

Inside the particle accelerator

THE day started slowly at Perl’s apartment, where, as we were about to leave down the long hallway to the door, two women dashed from another direction.

One was Perl’s mother, Teri Perl, who offered that she’d tried to leave unnoticed because “I didn’t want to steal Jed’s spotlight.” And then she stole it anyway. Her face displays a mixture of pride and lingering bewilderment -- “I’m not that much for the art. More music. I’m a pianist” -- at how Perl, before turning 5, would march through art museums and galleries to which he was taken and machine-gun opinions at the art.

“He’d say, ‘I like this, I don’t like that.’ I don’t know that he knew what he was talking about,” she added. “But he sure had strong opinions.”

She told how Perl grew up in Palo Alto, after a time the family spent in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his parents first moved after leaving New York. He’s the oldest of four children. “And did he tell you about his father?” his mother asked.

“No, he didn’t,” I said.

“I find that interesting. Well, he’s a Nobel laureate.”

“In what?”

“Physics. He discovered a subatomic particle. The tau lepton.”

Martin Perl still works at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The tau lepton lives and dies within a fraction of a second, a lot shorter time than the extraordinary age of artistic change that Perl chronicles. It was hard, after hearing of Perl’s father, to not think of New York as Jed Perl’s giant particle accelerator, the place to test his theory of how the countless atoms of cultural phenomena he charts in “New Art City” grow, dialectically collide and die. Subatomic particles fall into groups, and even that reflects Perl’s stress on the often collective nature of inspiration.

In the cab, the mother encounter seems to cling to him. He says that returning to New York, where he started as an undergraduate at Columbia in 1968, the autumn after the university’s searing riots, answered a longing for the city. “I never forgave them for taking me away from New York,” he says. “The whole time I was in Palo Alto, I was waiting to get back here.”

Just blocks from the Modern, the taxi suddenly veers east on Fifth Avenue, away from the museum. Perl, a tall shaggy man of 53, who looks like a lanky Jewish buffalo, lunges forward. “Stop, sir!” he bellows, good manners giving way to alarm. “You’re going the wrong way! We want to get out!”

Finally, we arrive at the main entrance to the big, newly rebuilt building of shining, squared, angular metal and glass shapes, designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. It opened almost exactly one year ago.

We stare at the glass doors and at a sign announcing the museum’s schedule.

It is Tuesday. The Modern is closed.

“I’m putting this on you,” Perl says, teasing.

Frustrating encounters with the Modern are his main experience of the place these days. In his review of the newly opened museum and the re-installed exhibits, Perl complimented “the refinements of Taniguchi’s architecture” but said the museum’s legacy as the place where “the scholarly study of modern art was also to a large degree defined” has given way to the mode of a trend-following “aging hipster.” Its “holdings in early twentieth-century art,” he charges, “are being used further to inflate the prestige of a sicko contemporary art market.”

For this star journalistic rejecter of the Modern’s policies, the rejection today is mutual. Still, he says that his criticism stems from a lifelong affection for the museum. He tests the doors again and discovers they are open after all. So we stride inside, up the long section of a lobby that turns toward an open area and a staircase. A silvery cord stretches across the opening. All we can do, from that threshold, is imagine the Modern’s deeper spaces.

Perl says he actually likes it better today, without crowds.

“Taniguchi’s very delicate effects are sort of obliterated when there are all these people,” he judges, in a voice that is deep and deliberate. “There is this quiet serenity about the architecture that is at odds with large crowds of people.”

To those who might say Perl’s views on the Modern and other topics seem willfully polemical, he answers that he sees the critic’s role as largely to assess how artists or institutions balance the forces of authority and freedom: “The strand that runs through everything I’ve written is a love of the arts as a realm where freedom and authority exist side by side. And the individual artist -- or viewer -- engages that authority freely, as an individual, finding his or her own way. ‘New Art City’ is about this kind of freedom. So, I think, is much of my criticism.”

Near the door to the Modern

AND where would he go first, if he could go farther into the Modern now?

Perl mentions the painting upstairs by Hans Hofmann. “I remember that, when the museum opened, there was only one Hofmann, one with colorful rectangles,” he says, adding that it hung in “a not very well-conceived room.”

The solitary presence of the Hofmann at the prestigious Modern points out the stark contrast between Perl’s recasting of the 1940s and ‘50s and existing versions. “Nobody would dispute that I’m giving him a centrality he doesn’t generally have.”

Elaborating on the German-born artist’s appeal, Perl says: “Hofmann argued that you could go from the old but you are also going to the new, to what is modern. But you could reverse it as well, going from what was immediate and rediscovering the old, the basic traditions.”

The first words of “New Art City” are Hofmann’s to Joan Mitchell:

“Mitcha, why aren’t you home painting?”

And Perl’s opening scene continues, one of many such deceptively casual encounters from which he builds the book:

“This was what Hans Hofmann said to Joan Mitchell when he saw her out walking her dog early one morning in the paint-happy 1950s. Hofmann was in his seventies and Mitchell was turning thirty. She had studied with him briefly, in the school he had run in Manhattan since 1933. And like so many other artists of her day, she had felt the casually messianic impact of this man who was thickly built, with a large, powerful head and an orator’s way of using his arms and hands to underscore a dramatic point.”

The open lobby of the closed Modern affords views of paintings by Miro and Ellsworth Kelly, a metal wall sculpture by David Smith and Rodin’s toweringly heroic bronze of Balzac. Each of these artists has a place in Perl’s narrative.

We linger, but finally, having never fully arrived, find it is time to leave.

We take up our tour, pausing at street corners where Perl describes artists as if they still lived and where he recalls the art-saturated writers who walked these streets, brainstorming. We cross into the heart of Greenwich Village toward the end of a luminously bright afternoon, and as we sit talking on a bench in Washington Square Park, the seminal, still-beautiful neighborhood of “New Art City” fades beneath the shadows of a September dusk.


Jed Perl

What: A Discussion with Jed Perl and Robert Alter: Imagining the City -- Artists, Writers, and the Urban Experience

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 857-6000