By Jed Perl

Knopf. 641 pp. $35

"A Byzantine city within the Byzantine city" -- that was how the painter Pat Passloff described the small, intense world that New York artists had created for themselves by the 1950s. It is a world that Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic, evokes brilliantly and often poetically in New Art City, from the downtown streets where painters like Willem de Kooning noticed the patterns made by discarded gum wrappers and reflected neon lights on rainy-night city pavements; to the shabby lofts recently vacated by garment workers where abstract expressionists painted their landmark works in obscurity; to such deliberately non-atmospheric gathering places as the Cedar Bar and the Artists Club, where new ideas that often said a resounding "No" to older traditions were dialectically hammered out; to the rapidly developing marketplace of galleries and newly powerful museums that would turn their attention away from the abstract expressionists by the early 1960s and usher in the giddy, big-money-fueled era of anti-art and Pop Art.

For Perl, "the history of images [is] also the history of ideas," and in this book those ideas -- the constantly shifting dynamic of thesis/antithesis/synthesis that reshaped mid-century art in an unforeseeably speeded-up process -- are very much his focus. In a journey (accompanied by many useful illustrations) that takes us from Hans Hofmann and de Kooning through Robert Rauschenberg and Donald Judd, Perl brings us the voices of the artists themselves and the critics and poets who wrote about them, working from artists' journals, transcripts of discussions at the Club and the Museum of Modern Art, little magazines, memoirs and even fictional renderings of the art world.

What's exemplary and particularly welcome about Perl's approach is his insistence upon seeing the art world whole. His attention focuses not only upon the major figures of ascendant movements but also upon how a variety of independent-minded artists, energized by the vitality of the mid-century exchange of ideas, found individual means of expression. With a cooler eye than critics of the past, such as Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, Perl eschews hero worship and triumphalism and instead, sometimes surprisingly, lets his enthusiasm and emphasis fall upon idiosyncratic figures such as Joseph Cornell or upon artists other critics might consider of minor importance, such as the figurative painters Fairfield Porter, Nell Blaine and Leland Bell, who co-existed with the abstract expressionists but stubbornly went their own modest ways.

Both Blaine and Bell, as well as many other New York painters of diverse persuasions, had studied with Hans Hofmann, one of Perl's few acknowledged heroes. In his eighties by the 1950s, still teaching the fundamentals of art in the classic easel-painting studio tradition while allowing himself the freedom to work in a variety of contemporary styles, Hofmann constituted a vital and inspiring bridge to earlier 20th-century European painting, from Matisse to Mondrian. But his "pluralism," Perl writes, "had no whiff of eclecticism, for it was powered by a belief that all of the branches of the tree of art shared a single ineradicable root system."

This is clearly Perl's deeply held belief as well, and he is in his element when he writes about the influence of the sculptural figure painting of the 17th-century Le Nain brothers upon de Kooning's early work or Cornell's use of 19th-century ballet imagery or how the chiaroscuro of New York was interpreted by different artists or how the movement away from Mondrian, then back toward him, culminated in the work of Donald Judd. Whatever the "will-to-form" in a given work of art -- whether abstract, representational or constructivist -- for Perl the essential question is always whether or not that form has a deep connection with the artist's sensibility.

If he has blind spots as a critic, they may lie in his chilly responses to some of the heroes of abstract expressionism: Jackson Pollock, de Kooning and Franz Kline. Innately distrusting heroics, Perl seems unmoved by what was genuinely grand about their ground-breaking work and recoils from what he seems to see as an excess of sensibility. He considers Pollock and Kline essentially minor talents. De Kooning he respects for his place in art history, but he admires his individual brushstrokes more than his paintings. The work that truly appeals to Perl is lighter or cooler (Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly or Joan Mitchell) or exemplifies a kind of "splendid modesty" (a Cornell box, a Blaine flower, a Porter cityscape) or "structure as distilled feeling"(Judd).

Perl shows far less restraint in identifying villains than he does in naming heroes. Waiting in the wings during the abstract expressionist heyday was Marcel Duchamp, like Hofmann an emigre from Europe but unlike him a man who hated painting, even the smell of paint, and whose dadaist anti-art stance greatly influenced a new generation of painters in the 1960s: first the pop artists Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, then Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, soon followed by Joseph Stella, a painter of pinstripes then in his early twenties -- all of whom, in Perl's view, saw an opportunity for themselves in the waning of the previous movement and seized the day and the spotlight within a couple of years.

Abetting the whole process were art critics in search of something new to write about, the Museum of Modern Art, which had opened up a new audience for what was both novel and easily accessible, and a new breed of collectors, such as taxi magnate Robert Scull, who were happy to take their de Koonings and Klines off their walls and replace them with the more easily accessible Rosenquists and Warhols. The old seriousness was thus replaced by irony and cynicism, an obsession with celebrity and the thrill of watching prices escalate for the latest manifestation of what Perl calls anti-art.

Which brings us to where we are today. Perl gives a withering description of the excited crowd that gathered in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in 1962 to watch Jean Tinguely's Rube Goldberg-like self-destructing machine do its thing with enough smoke to obscure the fact that nothing too interesting was happening. I was reminded immediately of the banal, highly touted "Gates" installed by Christo last year in Central Park and of a remark I heard from one unintimidated viewer: "Maybe it's art, but it reminds me of little dressing rooms."

As for New York itself, it's becoming more of a staging ground for young investment bankers than for young artists. Many of the latter are leaving town, unable to pay the luxury real estate prices charged for their former work spaces, and dispersing up the Hudson River Valley. Maybe something new and astonishing will develop there, but it will happen outside Byzantium. *

Joyce Johnson is the author of "Minor Characters" and the recently published "Missing Men."

"Target," by Jasper JohnsFrom "Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday" "Asheville," by Willem de Kooning