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.
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.