Drawing Board: New York Mid-Century

Memorial to a metropolis 

Oliver Wiseman

By the end of the Second World War, the earth’s economic and political centres of gravity had moved west. When, in 1946, New York was chosen as the site of the United Nations’ headquarters, the city’s position as de facto capital of the world was cemented. But for all America’s might, many still thought it a cultural wasteland. Exasperated by his philistine country, the critic Clement Greenberg took to the pages of Horizon to give vent: “Artists are as isolated in the US as if they were living in Paleolithic Europe. The isolation is unconceivable, crushing, unbroken, damning. What can 50 do against 140 million?” New York Mid-Century: Post-War Capital of Culture, 1945-65 (Thames & Hudson, £28) is a book about the end of that isolation. It catalogues the spectacular results of a city’s culture catching up with its affluence. Splashed across its pages is the story of New York’s climb to the top not just of the art world but in all creative endeavours. These are portioned out between three authors: French writer Annie Cohen-Solal on visual arts; Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer Prize-winning former architecture critic for the New York Times and the New Yorker, on architecture and design; and former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb on the performing arts.

Pierre Matisse (Henri’s youngest son) never doubted the US’s cultural promise. “In a future world,” he wrote, “America, full of dynamism and vitality, must play a role of premiere importance.” At his 57th Street Gallery, Matisse would go about fulfilling his own prophecy by exhibiting important European artists. Young American artists came to the Pierre Matisse Gallery for an education in the avant-garde. There they found the work of, among others, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian. Many of the artists Matisse exhibited had come to New York as émigrés during the war, their presence accelerating the city’s artistic rise.

“Untitled”, 1956, by Mark Rothko (Heyman Collection/Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/ARS)

But New York’s artists soon weaned themselves off their European antecedents. Abstract Expressionism was a movement born in the USA; by 1950 Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock were renowned the world over; and by 1965 Andy Warhol’s amphetamine-fuelled Factory was churning out his uninhibited pop art.

Architecturally, this was the era of playing it safe. According to Goldberger, buildings erected in the immediate postwar period were “conventional and cautious, driven more by economics than by any larger vision”. The skyline the mind conjures when thinking of New York was the product of the excitement of the 1920s: the Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, the Empire State Building followed in 1931. Nothing would top these art deco masterpieces — at least in terms of scale — until the Twin Towers in 1970.  There were significant exceptions to the triumph of practicality over imagination. One was the Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, which Goldberger calls “elegant in its materials, serene in its proportions, and sumptuous as a presence in the   cityscape”. The critic Lewis Mumford described Seagram as “not just another business building but a singular monument . . . its aloof, aristocratic qualities are not likely to be often repeated in a city where — to resort to that classic confession of the realty financier — ‘money does not look ahead more than five years’.”

Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building, 1958 (Ezra Stoller/Esto)

In theatres, New Yorkers enjoyed the flourishing of some of America’s greatest playwrights. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway in 1947; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman followed two years later. These 20 years were musical theatre’s golden age: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music all premiered between ’45 and ’65, as did Guys and Dolls and West Side Story.

The cross-fertilisation that gave New York between 1945 and ’65 such vim happened mostly at night. The photographs of the city’s nightlife in New York Mid-Century drip with affluence and glamour: Hemingway rubbing shoulders with the Kennedys at the Stork Club; Billie Holiday performing at the Downbeat; diners at Café Society, the city’s first racially integrated club; Upstairs at the Downstairs; Downstairs at the Upstairs.

The crap-game scene in Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” (Vandamm Collection/Photofest)

While the book paints a vivid picture of cultural life half a century ago, some important scenes don’t get a look in. The Beat poets are nowhere to be seen and though Greenwich Village’s folk revival was up and strumming by the end of the ’50s-Bob Dylan, a late arrival in the Village, released his first album in 1961 — there are no photographs of po-faced peaceniks in New York Mid-Century. But New York in the 20 years after the war was the greatest city in the world at its peak. And that is too much for one book.

Interior of the TWA Terminal, completed in 1962 (Ezra Stoller/Esto)

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