Book Review: New York Mid-Century, 1945-1965
by Annie Cohen-Solal, Paul Goldberger, and Robert Gottlieb
The Vendome Press, 2014
It’s surely speaks well of a book if a team of reviewers is needed to do it justice, and this is certainly the case with a glorious new volume from The Vendome Press, New York Mid-Century: 1945-1965, which covers the art, architecture, dance, theatre, and nightlife of the Big Apple through all the unseemly and stunning paroxysms of its post-war re-invention.
Annie Cohen-Sobel writes the opening section, about the burgeoning art world that featured such epic frauds and con men as Warhol, Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning, men who put splotches of paint or straight lines (or nothing at all) on canvases, called it “Abstract Expressionism,” and soon had alleged connoisseurs paying millions for works they could quite as easily have done themselves. Cohen-Sobel is hard up against a wall when it comes to writing about this garbage (at one point, when describing a work of Rothko’s consisting entirely of two red rectangles, she writes, hilariously, “Rothko’s abstract rhetoric continued to evolve. Here colored rectangles float one on top of another”), but she’s excellent on the social feel of the era’s various artist communities, and she has a biographer’s natural feel for the subtle interplay of high-strung personalities. In almost any other era of American history, she’d have had actual talent to write about as well, but she does what she can.
A far richer field falls to Paul Goldberger, whose segment deals with the most explosive and controversial arts-related aspect of postwar New York: its architecture. This was the age that saw disastrous fads like “brutalism” in public buildings – and that saw disastrous fadsters like Robert Moses temporarily tapping the zeitgeist just long enough to demolish great swaths of living architectural history in order to pave the way for pavement. Goldberger does a very lively job of succinctly chronicling the battle between Moses and Jane Jacobs, and he himself is elsewhere critical of Robert Caro’s celebrated “Power Broker,” for instance rightly describing the man’s 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows as looking like “a sequence of corporate logos translated into buildings.”
This was a time of dynamic building surges for good or ill, and Goldberger manages to look at a great many architectural icons that are still with us today, from the United Nations General Assembly Building to the Metropolitan Opera House and Lincoln Center, to the Guggenheim Museum (about which he aptly quotes the great Lewis Mumford, who referred to it as “a Procrustean structure: the art in it must be stretched out or chopped off to fit the bed Wright prepared for it”). And like so many architectural historians before him (Henry Hope Read in his The Golden City comes to mind), Goldberger gives proper space to the worst building debacle in the city’s history:
And then two years later, in 1963, came the greatest failure of historic preservation in New York’s history: the loss of Pennsylvania Station, Charles McKim’s extraordinary monument to the power of railroads, the power of New York, and the idea of a noble entrance to a city. Penn Station was not only McKim’s masterwork but also one of the greatest twentieth-century works of classicism ever built anywhere, and it was torn down not to make way for a better work of architecture or even for a better train station, but for one of the city’s dreariest new office towers and a new Madison Square Garden, which the architect Charles Luckman housed in a banal building that looked like a gargantuan drum.
(He properly reminds us that the critic Vincent Scully lamented at the time, “One entered the city like a god … Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”)
The book’s final section (and also tantalizingly its shortest, half the length of the other two) features Robert Gottlieb writing about an equally sprawling aspect of the city’s postwar art scene, namely dance, jazz, theater, and the boozy nightlife. This was the age of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, of legendary nightclubs like 21 and the Stork Club (where one photo identifies a “bevy” of Kennedy ladies), and iconic stage shows like Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Man of La Mancha, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Hello Dolly!, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Death of a Salesman. Considering the fact that Gottlieb is by a healthy margin the best writer of the three on hand in this book, many parts of his section read like absent-minded boilerplate, although he can be vivid about certain performances, especially Marlon Brando’s star-making turn in A Streetcar Named Desire:
The performance of the young Marlon Brando was as electrifying as Laurette Taylor’s had been – here was acting genius to match that of the British theatrical knights, and of a new kind: brutally realistic, explosive, dangerous. In the countless productions of Streetcar since then, it has been seen as Blanch DuBois’s play – a diva vehicle. Back then, it was Stanley Kowalski’s; the perfectly capable Jessica Tandy didn’t stand a chance against him.
Gottlieb’s segment is the most openly melancholy of the three, and the gloomiest when it comes to looking at the present instead of the past. After writing about such titanic Broadway figures as the Gershwins or Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein, he flatly declares, “There’s no one remotely as talented working on the musical stage today,” and in a round-up of modern Broadway that name-checks things like Rent, Avenue Q, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, and the extravaganzas of Andrew Lloyd Webberm, he concludes on an almost funereal note:
And yes, the very rare show with an old-fashioned kind of book: The Producers, Billy Elliot, The Book of Mormon. Plus revivals, revivals, revivals, to feed the audience’s nostalgia for Broadway’s heyday. And let’s not forget Forbidden Broadway, which has been sticking it to musicals on and off since 1982.
Clearly, this hasn’t been a sterile period, or a boring one; it would even be fair to say that it’s been more varied and inventive than the “golden” period that more or less came to an end in 1965. But has it been as satisfying?
It’s an odd note on which to end a book like this one, especially considering New York’s current stage-play world (on and off Broadway) is yards and yards more vibrant and encouraging than the parallel worlds of either architecture or, God help us, art. But even Gottlieb in a rare pessimistic mood can’t dim the wonders of the book as a whole, which is so profusely illustrated at 400 pages that carrying it around on the subway feels like doing light construction work. The design folks at The Vendome Press have outdone themselves in making this a volume to treasure, and if they go on to do New York 1965-1985, drafting three new specialists and bringing another fascinating era to life in pictures, more power to them.