Jed Perl’s erudition is such that it outclasses the sophistication of most contemporary art and its surrounding shenanigans. If Ai Weiwei was making a statement with his exhibition at the Perez Art Museum of Miami earlier this year, and Maximo Caminero was making a statement by smashing a component of one of the works in said exhibition, Perl’s literal statement about the matter was more interesting than both of them.
I find something weirdly fascinating about the entire affair. Is anybody surprised that such things can happen when Neo-Dadaism becomes canonical and the self-appointed rule breakers rule?
Thus Perl is obliged to look back a bit for the sake of finding something substantial to chew on. He is at work on the first full-length biography of Alexander Calder, but in the meantime a flurry of activity has issued from his writing desk. Firstly, Library of America has published Art in America 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism under his able editorship. Over the course of 800 pages, Perl captures what in the introduction he calls the
mongrel energy of the art writing of the period. He includes the
bergs, Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Steinberg, and similar figures from the critic-philosopher wing of art writing like Rosalind Krauss, Susan Sontag, and Michael Fried.
But no less represented are the artists themselves, with statements from Barnett Newman, Hans Hofmann, Mark Tobey, Philip Guston, and several others. Literary types figure prominently as well, with a poem by Howard Nemerov about a sculpture by David Smith, Randall Jarrell’s complaint about abstract expressionism, and Kenneth Rexroth’s approbation of Morris Graves. (This last example gives you a sense of how curt the language of the age of the Internet has become. Here’s a sentence for you:
Except for the emphasis on deep complex space and calligraphic skill which he learned from Tobey, but which he could just as well have learned from the Far Eastern paintings in the Seattle Museum, Graves’s style, or styles, his special mode of seeing reality and his techniques of handling it, have come, like the spider’s web, out of himself, or, at the most, out of the general cultural ambiance of a world civilization, syncretic of all time and space.) The read alternates between stern and delightful and one emerges from it exposed to an enormous richness and variety of thought.
This year also saw the 25th-anniversary reissue of Perl’s Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I by Arcade Publishing. The book
was conceived as a love letter, as he writes in a new introduction, and in it he extols the seminal actors of figurative modernism (Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Léger, Dufy, Braque, Giacometti, Balthus, and Hélion) with an aplomb that showed up early in his prose and never left him. Arcade also recently published Double Rhythm: Writings About Painting by Hélion. The editor is Deborah Rosenthal, who in addition to being an accomplished critic and artist, is Perl’s wife. Conversations around the breakfast table chez Perl must be marvelous.
It’s not as recent but I lastly direct your attention to the wonderful Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, an extended meditation on the short life, prodigious works, and fascinating milieu of the Rococo master, organized alphabetically. Here we see Perl in a playful mode, yet the result is as touching as his straightforward pieces. When someone compiles the art writings of our own time, Perl will likely supply some of the collection’s brighter gems.