Magazine | December 8, 2014, Issue

Post-war Dreaming

Art in America, 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, edited by Jed Perl (Library of America, 867 pp., $40)

Jed Perl is one of the most ferociously intelligent art critics writing today. From his perch at The New Republic, he issues not only taut reviews of current exhibitions but also regular contentions about the state of the art world. There is something prickly about much of Perl’s writing, but at a time when the writing of many so-called art critics is indistinguishable from the puffery dispensed by the PR departments of museums and galleries, it is a pleasure to encounter a critic who understands that criticism is not cheerleading, that it involves sifting, judgment, discrimination, and the deployment of taste.

I’m not sure I would have selected Perl to edit a volume of writing about American art from 1945 to 1970. His most conspicuous virtues as a critic, I would have urged—including a lordliness that not infrequently trespasses into the ornery—augur ill for a task demanding evenhandedness. I would have been wrong: It turns out that Perl was exactly the right person to assemble this plump miscellany. On view in this volume is Perl’s intelligence sans his ferocity. His introduction, though brief, is authoritative and conjures expertly with the most astonishing fact about this period of American cultural endeavor: the sudden entry into the limelight of American art as a mainstage, top-billing phenomenon. As Perl notes, “the sense of confidence and authority that American artists, curators, collectors, critics, gallerygoers, and museumgoers were experiencing in the 1950s and 1960s was certainly unprecedented.”

Whence the swagger? The book’s terminus a quo, 1945, suggests a large part of the answer. Defeating the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, emerging as the world’s preeminent economic dynamo and military hegemon—such things do wonders for one’s “sense of confidence and authority,” even among such exotic fauna as inhabit the curious precincts of the art world.

The contents of this volume—Perl describes it as a “treasure trove”—are extremely various: short, short statements by artists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, meditations on art by such practitioners as Fairfield Porter, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol, and criticism by littérateurs from Truman Capote and Frank O’Hara to John Ashbery and Howard Nemerov. There is also a sampling from some of the most celebrated critics of the period—Hilton Kramer and the three ’bergs: Green- (Clement), Rosen- (Harold), and Stein- (Leo)—as well as feux d’artifice by Susan Sontag, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and others. Perl describes the tout ensemble as “a magnificent, cacophonous sort of oratorio, with soloists and choir members agreeing about little except that the time has come for American art to take its place on the world stage.”

There are a few turgid eddies in this volume, but Perl has chosen well. The dominant note is ebullience. Anyone who has grown up among these totems will find himself among many familiar acquaintances (note I say “acquaintances”: not all of them will be friends). For me, anyway, there was a little spurt of nostalgia as I thumbed through the book: “Ah, yes, I remember that! Oh, dear, that too.” Some old chestnuts have stood the test of time: Frank O’Hara’s charming poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” for example, which I reckon I haven’t read in about 40 years. I was pleased to see a few essays by my late friend Sidney Tillim, an eccentric painter and intelligent critic who amused everyone by claiming that he “painted like Velázquez and composed like David.” He meant it seriously but, somehow, not boastfully. Such was the innocence of the period.

Perl has included several classic pieces, including Clement Greenberg’s “‘America-Type’ Painting,” Michael Fried’s owlish graduate-school staple “Art and Objecthood,” and Randall Jarrell’s mischievous “Against Abstract Expressionism.” Jarrell mentions a painter about whom he had just been reading:

She has been painting only a little while, yet most of her paintings have already found buyers, and her friends hope, soon, to purchase a husband for the painter. She is a chimpanzee at the Baltimore Zoo. Why should I have said to myself, as I did say: “I am living in the first age that has ever bought a chimpanzee’s paintings”?

You see where this is going, and it travels thither in a most engaging way.

At 867 pages, Art in America is a long book. And yet it might have been even longer, or perhaps somewhat differently constituted. Perl includes Harold Rosenberg’s famous essay “The American Action Painters.” He prints a fine essay on Edward Hopper by my late friend and colleague Hilton Kramer, but not, alas, Hilton’s devastating attack on the whole idea of Action Painting, “The Strange Case of Harold Rosenberg” (1965). “Dwelling exclusively on the artist’s status as a cultural insurgent,” Hilton wrote that

on the putative “action” of his psyche during the creative process, and on all manner of motives and intentions, he eschewed the analysis of form as an inferior, if not an altogether irrelevant, interest. This shift of critical focus away from the artist’s completed work—which is to say, away from his objective accomplishment and its aesthetic commerce with historical precedent—and onto the psychodynamics of his spiritual life had an effect quite the opposite of what was intended. It alienated the visual realities of painting from the crux of the discussion, leaving the audience free to regard the creation as being little more than the psychological residue of the artist’s personal crisis.

#page#It is difficult, I believe, to read Hilton’s essay and ever again take the mellifluous phrase “action painting” at all seriously. I wish that essay and some other sober-minded interventions had been included.

Perl has done a superb job in living up to the title and subtitle of this book. His headnotes about each contributor are models of informed, dispassionate exposition: In the space of a paragraph or two, he locates what is distinctive about his subject, deftly summarizing his place in the cultural firmament of the moment. I did, however, close the volume with two, no, three, misgivings—about the volume, not the editor. One misgiving centered on the melancholy feeling that, after all, the subject of this “magnificent, cacophonous sort of oratorio” seems more and more dated. “Art in America, 1945–1970”: How important—important, I mean, in terms of aesthetic achievement—was it? Here we have nearly 1,000 pages devoted to an artistic flowering that, in retrospect, seems more a sociological than an artistic triumph.

My second misgiving revolves around the signposts of the book’s subtitle: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism. Much in the book, and several figures whose work is reprinted in the book, have almost nothing to do with any of those movements. Fairfield Porter, for example, was a remarkable painter, and a percipient critic, but his signature work does not belong to the realm of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, or Minimalism.

“Well, the title says ‘Writing from the Age of . . .’” True enough. But when I step back and ponder the significance of the three movements named in the subtitle, my misgiving increases, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, even the highest-octane phenomenon, Abstract Expressionism, looks more and more like a circuitous tributary, not to say a wrong turn, off the main current of Western artistic endeavor. And Pop Art, what was that? Philip Johnson, who was about as close to Pop Art as an architect can come and keep his license, once said that post-modernism insinuated “the giggle” into architecture. Pop Art did the same for art. As Andy Warhol put it, “Art is what you can get away with.” What do we think about that? And as for Minimalism, I think Clement Greenberg had it right when he noted in “Recentness of Sculpture” (another piece I wish had been included here) that Minimalism represents the triumph of ideation over aesthetics. With Minimalist art, as a popular slogan put it, “what you see is what you see.” C’est tout, and it’s not much.

Jed Perl has done a splendid job harvesting the fruit in his assigned garden. Unfortunately, the garden itself turns out to have produced more infertile sports than fecund and nourishing produce. Abstract Expressionism, which once bestrode the cultural landscape like a colossus, seems smaller and smaller as the years go by, a faintly embarrassing curiosity more than a major achievement. And the same goes, a fortiori, for Pop Art and Minimalism. The former never even took itself seriously; the latter exuded the look of seriousness without the accomplishment.

One can disagree about the nature of the achievement of this art, and I have reason to suspect that Jed Perl would disagree vigorously with my deflationary assessment. Yet even if you think Jackson Pollock (say) and Andy Warhol were great geniuses—artistic geniuses, I mean, not marketing gurus—you might still wonder (and this brings me to my final misgiving) about the place of this volume in the canon of the Library of America. When the LoA was started, in 1979, its model was the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, the elegant series of French classic authors.

The brainchild of a small handful of public intellectuals, including Edmund Wilson and Jason Epstein, the Library of America was meant to provide a suitable typographic domicile for America’s best and most important writers. That indeed is how it started. But for some years past, the franchise, in order to keep the presses rolling, has lowered its entry standards again and again. What was meant to enshrine in uniform volumes the pinnacle of American literature now publishes all manner of trendy ephemera, from the novels of Elmore Leonard to the essays of Susan Sontag and the movie criticism of Pauline Kael. What’s next?

Art in America is a worthy volume. Edmund Wilson might well have enjoyed thumbing through it. But I doubt he would have approved of its inclusion in the Library of America.

– Mr. Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, is the author of Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity and The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art.

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