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December 16, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Made in Manhattan Made in Manhattan (December 16, 2005)@12subhead:Locally bred art critic brings New York's mid-century art scene to life in new book

by Terry Tang

At 557 pages -- not including 75 pages of endnotes -- Jed Perl's new book reads like a long, comprehensive love letter.

His undying affection for New York City propelled the "New Republic" art critic to write "New Art City." Released in October, the book chronicles Manhattan's postwar rise as a modern art capital.

The culmination of 12 years of research and writing, "New Art City" had been simmering inside Perl's consciousness longer still. He had already absorbed the official literature documenting the mid-century scene, but felt he wanted to paint a broader picture.

And so the Palo Alto High School alum lays out a panoramic history of the time with encyclopedic knowledge and dialogue snippets from famous and not-so-famous artists, reviewers, writers and patrons -- covering the phenomena of abstract expressionism and pop art.

The result is more than just an art book, said Heidi Baikie, who coordinated Perl's book-tour appearance last month at Books Inc. at Stanford Shopping Center, which attracted a crowd of 50.

"He really writes it in a way that you feel you're reading about Manhattan at the same time," she said. "The artists are on the street having discussions. ...It's like a travel book as well."

Perl traces the roots of the '50s and '60s scene to the 1930s, when many artists and scholars moved to America because of the charged political climate sweeping many European countries. Among them was Hans Hofmann, long considered the patriarch of abstract art.

Besides showing his own work, Hofmann established a school to teach principles of modern art. He brought a stability and authority to the community below 14th Street, Perl said. Like religious pilgrims, young artists converged in New York to learn from him.

In his 70s by mid-century, Hofmann was seen as the grandfather who liked to spoil and advise the grandchildren. His behind-the-scenes role as mentor may be one reason he isn't always on the radar of mainstream culture.

"At a time when de Kooning and Pollock were becoming idols in a way -- their reputations were moving so quickly -- younger artists might have felt more competitive with guys in their 40s," Perl said. "With Hoffmann, you don't compete with a grandparent. He was like a magical figure, a fairy godfather for people. He felt in turn the young artists had given him a second chance at life."

Both the war and later, the ensuing prosperity, catalyzed the formation of an arts-driven city within the city, Perl said. The resulting small-town microcosm of lofts, schools and hangouts spanned a 10-block radius around Greenwich Village. Optimistic youths who had not experienced the Depression finished college and wanted to respond to topical matters in a public way, Perl said:

"After the war, people talked about what their real contribution could be. ...They would think it through themselves and come out with paintings and poems that could have some kind of personal power and that could also contribute to society."

Perl's fascination with art is partly the result of nurturing parents. His author mother, Teri, founder of the educational software firm The Learning Company; and father, Martin, a Stanford Linear Accelerator Center professor who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1995; constantly exposed their four children to such museums and literary magazines as The New Yorker.

The family moved from Michigan to Palo Alto in 1963. An 11-year-old Perl began attending classes at Jordan Middle School as well as the Palo Alto Art Club (now the Pacific Art League). By the time Perl reached Paly, his visual arts interest went dormant. But reviewing movies for the school newspaper gave him a taste for art criticism.

After graduating at 16, Perl went to New York to study art at Columbia College. There, he reinvigorated his love of painting. He also successfully combined journalism and art. Perl spent most of the 1980s as a contributing editor at Vogue.

Now going into his 12th year as art critic at The New Republic, Perl felt fortunate -- if a little frenzied at times -- to have a "regular job" while working on his pet project.

On an intellectual level, he appreciated the differing pace of putting out a weekly magazine and revising a book.

"I've really enjoyed the contrasts between doing a piece on a short deadline that's kind of rushed, gathering information and then it's published," Perl said. "It was fun in contrast to write a chapter, then put it in a drawer. I liked that balance."

There's also a clear contrast between the scene in his book and present-day New York. Living the bohemian life in what are now Soho, Tribeca and Chelsea sounds more like a fairy tale today -- exorbitant real estate prices have artists creating hot spots elsewhere.

"Young artists have been pushed out into the boroughs," Perl said, but added, "I think there's still a lot of wonderful stuff going on with young artists in New York."

Like their mid-century brethren in Perl's book, most aspiring artists dream of living in two New Yorks: the physical one with all its brownstones and skyscrapers and the imaginary one where they can connect with other visionaries. Now, however, there are two divergent art scenes.

"New York is a commercial art juggernaut, with big auction houses, slick galleries that exert enormous power over what museums buy," Perl said. "Some of my artist friends, a lot of us, there's what we call the real art world and the official art world. I do think that the official art world, where so much money is involved, can be an oppressive force, a weight on top of artists."

Although such factors as economics and demographics have changed greatly in New York, Perl asserts that the city's indomitable spirit for creativity remains intact.

"Part of what I want to say is no matter what happens commercially, boom time-bust time, artists keep making art. And they find ways to do that personally, immediately, despite whatever is going on around them."

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