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Perfect City: New York and the Art that Changed the World

For a couple of decades in the 1940s and ‘50s, a rabble of raucous New York painters—many of whom lived hand-to-mouth in cold water flats—changed the course of 20th century art history. At this point, their names and stories may seem familiar—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline—relentlessly covered in places like LIFE Magazine and heralded by influential critics who picked apart the ways in which they were shredding tidy European notions about painting with massive, drippy, aggressive canvases.

Over the course of the next eight months, the Museum of Modern Art will show the works of these artists in a sprawling three-floor exhibit titled “Abstract Expressionist New York.” It is the first time in more than four decades that the museum has pulled together the significant abstract expressionists works from its collection and put them on view—all at the same time. It will be an opportunity to revisit an era in which a notion of an art “market” didn’t exist and the only market there was consisted entirely of ideas.

The setting for this creative explosion was New York City—a metropolis which, in the middle of the last century, was the most energetic center of an American culture which was going nowhere but up. For us at WNYC, the show has been an opportunity to go back in time—to look at what New York and its institutions were like in the 1940s and ‘50s, when intellectuals from all over were descending on Manhattan. When you could still get a Manhattan apartment for $17. When jazz seemed to be emanating form every club. When eccentric, high-flying socialites transformed humble tailor shops into influential galleries.

Back then, New York was, in the words of one journalist,

continuously and insolently alive, a place where one can buy a book or meet a friend at any hour of the day or night, where every language is spoken and xenophobia is unknown, where every purse and appetite is catered for, where every street and every quarter and the people who inhabit them are fulfilling their function, not slipping back into apathy, indifference, decay.

It was the perfect city.

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Perfect City is a two-part documentary which focuses on the physical spaces in New York that helped fuel the Abstract Expressionist movement — The Cedar Tavern and Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery in advance of the "Abstract Expressionist New York" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. It is narrated by Carolina A. Miranda, who blogs on the arts as Gallerina for WNYC, and produced by Ave Carrillo.

Early paintings by Robert Motherwell hang at the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit, 'Abstract Expressionist New York."
Early paintings by Robert Motherwell hang at the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit, 'Abstract Expressionist New York." ( Carolina A. Miranda )
Hans Hofmann's painting 'Spring,' from 1944-45 (possibly earlier) — reflecting a use of the drip technique at least two years before Pollock would make it famous.
Hans Hofmann's painting 'Spring,' from 1944-45 (possibly earlier) — reflecting a use of the drip technique at least two years before Pollock would make it famous.

Hofmann sounded like a character -- ran an important artist's school on Eight Street. He helped shape a number of important painters from the era.

( Carolina A. Miranda )
'Woman, I. 1950–52' by Willem de Kooning, an artist who wouldn't begin to meet success until he was well into his forties.
'Woman, I. 1950–52' by Willem de Kooning, an artist who wouldn't begin to meet success until he was well into his forties. ( Museum of Modern Art. © 2010 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS). )
Mark Rothko's 'No. 5/No. 22. 1950' — one of his early color field paintings.
Mark Rothko's 'No. 5/No. 22. 1950' — one of his early color field paintings. ( Museum of Modern Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS). )
'As his career progressed, Rothko's colors would get darker and more grim. Above, No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black),' from 1958.
'As his career progressed, Rothko's colors would get darker and more grim. Above, No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black),' from 1958.

Take quick steps forward and then back in front of Rothko's later paintings. You will see the colors shift every so slightly. It's subtle, but trippy.

( Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS). )
Pollock's 'Number 1A, 1948.' Raw canvas peaks out from choreographed swirls of paint. Many of his works from this era also contain three-dimensional objects such as sand, keys and even thumb tacks.
Pollock's 'Number 1A, 1948.' Raw canvas peaks out from choreographed swirls of paint. Many of his works from this era also contain three-dimensional objects such as sand, keys and even thumb tacks. ( © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS). )
'Shinnecock Canal,' 1957, by Grace Hartigan -- one of the few women to break through into the Ab-Ex boys club.
'Shinnecock Canal,' 1957, by Grace Hartigan -- one of the few women to break through into the Ab-Ex boys club.

Grace Hartigan strikes me as one of the people I would have loved to have met from this era. She seemed totally no nonsense: in her painting and in her way of being.

( Museum of Modern Art. © 2010 The Estate of Grace Hartigan )
'Chief,' by Franz Kline -- an artist whose seemingly haphazard swaths of paint were actually studiously-arranged.
'Chief,' by Franz Kline -- an artist whose seemingly haphazard swaths of paint were actually studiously-arranged. ( Museum of Modern Art © 2010 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS). )
'Gaea' by Lee Krasner, which she painted in 1966.
'Gaea' by Lee Krasner, which she painted in 1966. ( Museum of Modern Art. © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS). )
One of Barnett Newman's so-called 'zip' paintings: 'Vir Heroicus Sublimis,' from 1950-51.
One of Barnett Newman's so-called 'zip' paintings: 'Vir Heroicus Sublimis,' from 1950-51. ( Museum of Modern Art. © 2010 The Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS). )
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