To call this offering a book is an abuse of language

Still, the pictures are nice. A review of New York Mid-Century: Post War Capital of Culture, 1945 - 1965, with contributions by Annie Cohen-Solal, Paul Goldberger and Robert Gottlieb

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

New York Mid-Century: Post-War Capital of Culture, 1945–1965 Annie Cohen-Solal, Paul Goldberger and Robert Gottlieb (contributions)

Thames & Hudson, pp.399, £28, ISBN: 9780500517727

I picked up this book with real enthusiasm. Who cannot be entranced by those 20 years after the second world war when New York supplanted Paris as the cultural capital of the world? One thinks of the Beats, of Dylan and Greenwich Village, of Sontag and Trilling. Well think again, for none of the above feature in this book at all.

Indeed the first thing to be said is that to call this offering from Thames & Hudson a book is a real abuse of language. It has covers and inside those covers one finds text and image but the three essays that cover visual art, architecture and design and the performing arts appear to have simply been placed together without either editorial brief or plan. Worse, the book lacks not only a credited editor but also a credited designer. There are some wonderful images, as one expects of a Thames & Hudson book, but they seem to have been slapped down on the page without any attempt to work them into the essays, which they merely dominate.

The contributors seem simply to have been asked to produce lists, and so in the section on visual arts we trace the rise of Abstract Expressionism and then the arrival of Pop Art. But although we are led from gallery to gallery and from museum to museum and although we are endlessly being told that now New York is replacing Paris, there is no attempt to explain or even enthuse about the art. Nor is there any understanding of how the city worked as a continual cross-over between the various arts. Ashbery is mentioned by name, but there is no attempt to link the New York school of poetry to the painters that so influenced them.

Even more inexplicably there is no consideration of the general influence of popular culture, from fashion to film to rock music. Admittedly Warhol’s involvement with the Velvet Underground falls just outside the book’s limit date of 1965, although that poses the awkward question about why a date with no cultural significance whatsoever was chosen as an end point. But this arbitrary date does include the beginning of Warhol’s experiments with film, and indeed the magical Screen Tests which may prove his most enduring work. But of the Factory’s most considerable activity there is absolutely no mention.

One of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism was the demolition of the magnificent Penn Station in 1962
One of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism was the demolition of the magnificent Penn Station in 1962

Enough carping. This is a picture book and it has really great pictures. To see Pollock, de Kooning and Johns in their natural habitat, to be taken on a tour of the theatres and clubs of postwar New York, and to see the posters and stars of Broadway is a very considerable pleasure. So too is the chapter on architecture, in which Paul Goldberger tells of the rise and fall of the city’s buildings with real enthusiasm. It is fascinating to read how bitterly the New York City department of buildings opposed the granting of permission for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, and how divided opinion was when it finally opened.

The central story, however, is the continual demolition of decayed brownstones and streets in favour of tall buildings in open spaces. Behind much of this destruction lurked the rather sinister figure of Robert Moses, the building czar of New York who created the Parkway system. He finally met his match in the figure of the architectural critic Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 The Death and Life of American Cities demolished many of Moses’s arguments. But arguments in favour of preservation did not prevent one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of any age, when the magnificent Penn Station was demolished in 1962 to make way for a tawdry development. The outcry over this act of destruction did, however, lead to the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. When the railway owners decided that, not content with destroying Penn Station, they would demolish much of Grand Central, it was that commission which fought them all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was recognised for the first time that government could legally and legitimately act to preserve buildings of historical value.

There is no attempt in this book to produce a cultural history of New York in the 20 years after the war. It does, however, marshal images and anecdotes that make one long to read one.

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  • Anonymous Coward

    “One thinks of the Beats, of Dylan and Greenwich Village, of Sontag and Trilling.”

    Well, I don’t.
    It’s nice to see a really hostile book review, but I’m afraid the reviewer is open to some criticism himself. I mean, the Beats? and Bob Dylan? And why is mass culture so important anyway?
    New York City became the center of the art world for sure, but not much else. There was Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, but I wouldn’t call New York City the center of the dance world.
    And mixing Sontag and Trilling together, I mean they were intellectual enemies weren’t they?
    It’s just weird to see an article about New York City being the cultural capital of the world, and then

    reading that fifth-raters like the Beats and Bob Dylan are the examples of that, with no mention of Balanchine.

    • William_Jamison

      Fifth-raters? Who are you, Mrs. Astor?

      • Anonymous Coward

        Who is Mrs. Astor?

  • jansand

    As someone who lived in and spent his adolescence in the oldest apartment house in New York City at 142 East 18th Street full of creative people I am in full sympathy with the ire over the mindless destruction of noteworthy historical architecture of the city.

    • ricpic

      That place must’ve been roach central.

      • jansand

        It was delightful, seven spacious rooms with four working fireplaces at $75 per month rent. No cockroaches.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The end date seems rather arbitrary but a case can be made that that was when the cultural center moved to California. Of course of far greater interest is the situation that exists now where there is no cultural center at all, no one really cares about cultural figures very much and the mention of a name is more likely to get a mystified shrug than a sign of recognition.

    People really do not care very much about New York any more, except for the media folks who live there and still think that it matters.

  • johnt

    The book is apparently what New York has become, a mélange of structures of various but usually ugly modernist piles of material. Glass seems to be the key ingredient . This is what happens in a society that doesn’t have a past or want one.

    • laurence

      Agree with that, John. Rogers and his ilk seem determined to do likewise to London.