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How New York City changed the course of art history

The great artists of the mid-20th century and the city that nurtured them

At the end of World War II, the creative center of the art world moved from Paris to New York City. One scholar, accurately if grandiloquently, called the era that followed, "The Triumph of American Painting."

Many of the artists who founded what became known as the "New York School" were larger-than-life characters like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They lived hard, triumphed over years of adversity, and changed the course of art history.

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Americans have long been fascinated by these artists, their lives, and their accomplishments and have an insatiable appetite for books, articles, movies, and exhibitions about them.

Jed Perl, the art critic for The New Republic for the past decade, is the latest writer to tackle this topic. New Art City focuses on the 15-year period that began with de Kooning's first one-man show in 1958 and ended with the emergence of Andy Warhol and the establishment of Pop Art.

Perl's central theme is that the character and spirit of New York City - its passion, size, intensity, and contradictions - shaped the art that emerged. The narrative ranges from solitary studios to the places where artists gathered (like the Cedar Tavern and the Artist's Club) to the critics and magazines that chronicled the goings-on and to the dealers who sold the work.

But this is much more than a chronological history. Perl is, first and foremost, a critic, and he is not shy in expressing his opinions.

For example, his disdain for Pop Art is unmistakable while his affection for Hans Hoffman is unreserved. And who knows if the obscure Louis Matthiasdottir's still lifes and portraits are "among the essential achievements of American art in the 1970s and 1980s?" Perl thinks so and challenges the reader to disagree.

Perl argues that a wide range of artistic styles - including representational art - were common throughout the era. While most of the public attention today is focused on a small number of very well known artists, there were others - like Mercedes Matter, Fairfield Porter, John Graham, Nell Blaine, Burgoyne Diller, Alex Katz, and Earl Ketcham - whose work was first rate but, because they were out of the mainstream, is less well known today.

One of Perl's important accomplishments is to shine a much deserved spotlight on these and other lesser known but gifted artists. In doing so he underscores the vitality, creativity, and diversity of the art being created in New York City.

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On the other hand, some of the better known artists of the era are strangely absent. Robert Motherwell, for example, appears only in passing.

Perl makes connections between artists that would not automatically occur, even to knowledgeable readers. For example, the book concludes with a fascinating analysis of the work of the representational painter Fairfield Porter and the abstract sculptor Donald Judd, two very different artists who apparently did not care much for each other.

Yet both believed that their vision was a product of New York City, both felt that art should be based on ideas rather than an understanding of art history, and both thought art would help them express their personal versions of the sublime - making both direct heirs of the abstract expressionists even if their work has a radically different appearance.

This panoramic, fascinating book sheds a great deal of new light on the men and women and the huge array of forces that met in New York City and forever altered the course of art history. It is well written and carefully researched, drawing on a huge array of sources. It can be a complex read - sometimes even obscure and convoluted. Readers without a basic grasp of the history of the subject may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the narrative.

But this is by far the most thorough account of the "triumph of American painting" that we have. Perl conveys the messiness and richness of the era as the artists lived it. It is a splendid achievement and an exceptionally worthwhile read.

Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.