The silver-haired ladies sunning themselves in Gramercy Park, with toy poodles tucked into their purses, might be surprised to learn that early in this century their neighborhood was a hotbed of radical activity. Branch One of the Socialist Party was headquartered at the Rand School on East 19th Street. In 1911 Piet Vlag, a Dutch immigrant who worked as a cook there, founded The Masses magazine to promote insurgent art and politics. East 19th Street was also home to the Liberal Club, where the likes of Sherwood Anderson, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Edna St. Vincent Millay met to discuss “birth control, free love, socialism, women’s suffrage, modern art, and poetry.”
Each generation of New Yorkers inherits and reinvents its cultural geography. Where will the Chelsea gallery scene have migrated to when today’s infants have become tomorrow’s bohemians? The city’s cultural life is like a living organism, whose cells of activity are continually renewed and abandoned. Few flaneurs will remember the San Juan Hill tenement district (razed in the early 1960s to create Lincoln Center), or painter Arshile Gorky’s modernist murals on aviation for Newark Airport (destroyed by the army during World War II); hardly anyone alive can now recall composer Scott Joplin’s theatrical boardinghouse for black folks on West 47th Street.
In New York Modern, William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff, professors of history at Kenyon College and coauthors of a previous volume chronicling the New School for Social Research, have compiled a 400-plus-page saga of New York’s avant-garde, starting with the beaux-arts architectural patrons of the last fin de siècle, and ending with the loft-dwellers of the 1970s. Rather than presenting a united front of artistic activity, New York Modern mirrors the bewildering welter of its subject— zigzagging through time to cover the evolution of different neighborhoods. The city appears as a collection of microcosms, of rarely overlapping communities— a place of seemingly infinite possibility and unbridgeable distances. In the 1920s, Carl Van Vechten may have served as the white world’s emissary to Harlem, and in the 1930s Alfred Barr may have introduced New York artists and patrons to European modernism, but such figures were exceptions. New York’s avant-garde, like its mainstream culture, seems often enough to have been ruled by exclusion.
Yet the physical proximity and bubbling ferment of wildly divergent communities meant that almost everyone could find a place in this cauldron of dissent— from European refugees to disgruntled Midwesterners, and even Philadelphians like Man Ray, who in 1919 quipped: “Dada is impossible in New York. New York is Dada.” What did he mean? Perhaps that this vast urban collage, with its irrepressible
energy and endless random encounters, was permanently jarring to all
received ideas and expectations.
For New Yorkers (and Manhattanites especially), New York Modern offers the small-town thrill of recognition, transforming the history of 20th-
century art and culture into a local, neighborhood story. The sacred addresses, both celebrated and obscure— Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Fifth Avenue, jazz impresario Barney Josephson’s Café Society, the Group Theater’s 1932 communal apartment on West 52nd Street (10 rooms for 50 dollars a month, where Clifford Odets wrote plays)— are brought to life as ordinary brick and plaster. Today’s path to the dry cleaners, we learn, is lined with the ghosts of freethinkers, modernist aesthetes, and cultural radicals.
It may not change the history of modern art to know that Marcel Duchamp was “an inveterate subway user,” that Charles Ives loved the sound of the elevated train, or that Barnett Newman (artist and anarchist) ran for mayor of New York in 1933— but it can expand our understanding of the city as the primary muse, site, and subject of 20th-century creative activity.
The authors make this argument convincingly, through an accretion of innumerable details. Yet the extraordinary range and evenhanded focus of their work is also its major liability. Fairness may be a cardinal virtue among historians, and a perspective necessarily distorts things, but no cultural critic would be without one. To put it more bluntly, New Yorkers almost always have some bone to pick. These authors appear to have none.
Do they also betray a historian’s predilection for artistic movements with a robust social program? The radical politics that fueled New York’s experimental theater— from the Provincetown Players to the Federal Theater Project to the Actors Studio of the ’40s and ’50s, when Broadway was still a vital center of American dissent— are more vividly rendered than the radical aesthetics of Duchamp’s readymades or the works of European surrealists who found wartime refuge in New York. The authors’ discussion of the evolution of bebop (which Thelonious Monk called “a kind of music downtowners couldn’t steal because they couldn’t play it”) as an expression of Eisenhowerian speed and social alienation, appears more compelling than their association of abstract expressionism with post-Holocaust and Hiroshima horror, which seems a bit reductive.
New York Modern draws to its conclusion by detailing the ways in which the combined titanic forces of Robert Moses (who styled himself on the 19th-century Parisian Baron Haussmann) and Nelson Rockefeller molded the landscape of the city we know today, whose temples of culture— from Lincoln Center to the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim— stood like fortresses against a 1970s backdrop of urban decay. Significantly, the authors end their tale a full decade before the 1980s real estate boom that so altered the possibilities for radical culture in New York, making us wonder whether the long love affair between the arts and the city is finally turning sour. If there is
another volume of New York Modern, it will have to include more material on the outer boroughs, which are currently providing the next generation of art makers with refuge from Manhattan’s sterile luxury.