The esteemed Library of America has just published a massive new anthology called Art in America 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, edited by Jed Perl, the art critic for the New Republic.
The author of New Art City, an excellent book that focuses on the New York art world during this period, Perl has always had an affection for writers of the New York School and their painter friends (he writes at length about Fairfield Porter and James Schuyler, for example, in that book). So it is not surprising that the anthology includes ample selections of writings by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Schuyler, Porter, Larry Rivers, Edwin Denby, and others in their circle.
In this morning’s New York Times, there is a characteristically wonderful and sharp review of Perl’s anthology by Dwight Garner. Garner points out that the sprawl and variety of this loose, baggy monster of a book is appropriate for the the lively world of mid-century American art:
“It’s a plump, unbuttoned and convivial book, streaked like bacon with gossip and cogitation. New York’s writers drank at the San Remo on Bleecker Street in the 1950s, while the artists crammed into the smoky recesses of the Cedar Tavern on University Place. It was only a few blocks to stagger between them, and heads, egos and libidos collided … He’s interested in the era’s tumult, its howls and murmurs, its wolf whistles and rebel yells. He has raided memoirs, magazines and interviews for material; he’s also rummaged through forgotten pamphlets and yellowed correspondence. This is a party that spills out onto the lawn.”
The party features a slew of poets and fiction writers contemplating art — including Ralph Ellison on Romare Bearden, Jack Kerouac on Robert Frank’s The Americans, Robert Creeley on John Chamberlain, and, as Garner enthusiastically points out, generous helpings of Frank O’Hara:
“The poet Frank O’Hara, who worked at the Museum of Modern Art, pops up all over this volume, in his own writing and in that of others. He’s consistently welcome, and he always seems to be pouring vintage champagne. Here’s his report on a night out: ‘In Claes Oldenburg’s recent exhibition ‘THE STORE’ (107 East Second Street — the best thing since L. L. Bean), you find cakes your mother never baked, letters you never received, jackets you never stole when you broke into that apartment and a bride that did not pose for Rembrandt’s famous Jewish ceremony.'”
Alongside the expected statements by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and other giants of Abstract Expressionism and Pop, O’Hara’s painter friends also find a place at the table in Perl’s collection, including Porter, Rivers, and Grace Hartigan.
In fact, Garner points out that while some of the painters aren’t particularly good writers (he singles out De Kooning and Barnett Newman), some do have “agile voices,” and his examples include Larry Rivers — who writes of his own artistic development “I have gone from a baby to having the soul of a nail” — and Grace Hartigan, whose “journals, in particular, pop off the page. Hartigan deposed in 1952 about one of her paintings, ‘I feel like a mother who has given birth to an idiot — I know it lives so I can’t destroy it — but I hate it.'”
In addition to essays by a range of poets (William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Robert Duncan), the volume also includes selections of art criticism by other New York School poets, like Ashbery’s essays on Andy Warhol and Joan Mitchell, and James Schuyler on Jane Freilicher.
In closing, Garner notes:
“Like a Jasper Johns painting, ‘Art in America 1945-1970’ is patriotic and subversive, filled with flags and targets. Mr. Perl’s fine book returns us to a heady, pre-hippie moment in our cultural history. ‘Instead of drugs,’ Feldman says, ‘we had art.’
Not surprisingly, Ashbery provided one of the blurbs for Perl’s book:
“In this fascinating anthology Jed Perl has given narrative shape and structure to a wide range of voices: poets, artists themselves, and various other articulate observers of the amazing metamorphoses of postwar American art. What emerges is surely one of the defining records of our artistic age.”