The many masks of modern art -- VII; "Severing the umbilical cord"

Much of the art of this century deals with reduction and elimination, and conjures up an image of a man taking apart a boat in the middle of the ocean in order to determine the minimum support he requires to stay afloat.

Or an image of a writer trying to distill all he knows into one perfect sentence with which to begin his book.

But then there is the art which beginsm with nothing and invents its identity and form as it goes along.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy created such art. On a blank piece of paper or on bare canvas -- and with nothing but a clearly worked out formal image in mind -- he produced works which bear absolutely no resemblance to anything else on earth.

And yet he began as a realist with strong expressionistic overtones. Some of his early drawings rival Schiele and Kokoschka in characterization and effectiveness. But he gave it all up, completely changed his style and point of view, and spent the rest of his life creating geometric images.

He switched because he wanted to enter the mainstream of 20th century art. To his mind, the painting of our age -- thanks to the discoveries of Cubism -- was freeing itself once and for all from the tyranny of physical reality and appearance, and no longer required validation on the basis of its resemblance to , or derivation from, natural objects or events.

He felt, in other words, that art could begin with a line drawn on canvas and that it could, by its freedom from resemblances and approximations, create a whole new reality and identity for itself in areas never before entered by painting or sculpture. As he saw it, art was entering a new age and needed a new language and vocabulary to give it form.

Charles Sheeler, an American contemporary of Moholy-Nagy, saw things very differently. Although he too was greatly impressed by Cubism -- as well as by Constructivism -- and was also very anxious to create art of cultural significance, he could never quite rid himself of the notion that art began in reality. And not only in the reality of the mind and spirit, but in the reality encountered through sight, touch, and smell.

And so, much as he admired the revolutionary formalists, he could not do as Moholy-Nagy did and break completely with is past. Even his most abstract looking early paintings are so drenched in naturalistic associations that one immediately senses and perceives the landscape or still life from which the picture was derived. All lines, shapes, forms, textures, and colors in his art had their point of origin in the everyday world.

And yet, Sheeler's paintings were built from the ground up very much the way Moholy-Nagy built his. Nothing was left to chance, everything was planned and ordered with almost mathematical precision.

This quality of precision is apparent in the paintings by these two artists reproduced on this page. And these pictures have even more in common. The focal point of each -- the black circle in the Moholy-Nagy, the white pitcher in the Sheeler -- lies just slightly to the right and above the center of the composition.

Both these forms sit at the apex of a triangle whose base is the bottom edge of the picture. The slightly leaning cross-like shape to the right of Moholy-Nagy's black circle is a modified version of the table leg and its brace in the Sheeler. and the subtle sense of upward-right movement from the lower-left corner, which both works share, is emphasized in the Moholy-Nagy by the darkened right corner of the central rectangle, and in the Sheeler by the sweep of the curved portion of the table leg. One could even make the point that the mouth of the pitcher -- which creates a roughly circular form -- and the black circle are the hubs of their respective compositions.

And yet, for all that, the differences between the two paintings far outweigh their similarities.

For one thing, the Sheeler is rich in associations. We don't just see the painting, we are flooded by memories and feelings triggered by what we see inm the painting. By our memories and feelings about comfortable, old-fashioned rooms, handsome checkered rugs, elegant antique furniture, possibly someone we loved who once had a room like this. We may even remember that our own white pitcher needs mending.

Depending on our interest in the formal aspects of art, we may or may not also be aware of how exquisitely everything in the painting has been arranged, how beautifully the various rug and couch patterns play against one another, how perfectly the plate on the table balances the couch and anchors various movements. And how delicately the curved table leg completes a highly complex series of thrusts into space.

If we are aware of these things, a period of adjustment between small tensions and balances takes place. The associative elements are weighed against the formal. And since Sheeler wasm an artist, and was able to steer a central course between both realities, the end result of the viewing experience is a wonderful feeling of completeness, harmony, and balance.

Moholy-Nagy, on the other hand, would have declared all such associations irrelevant to today's art and would have claimed that they created a form of dependency upon memory and fact that interfered with the viewer's full appreciation of the art of painting.

And he would have added that what he and others like him had tried to do was to destroy this dependency once and for all by severing the historical umbilical cord between nature and art.

The Sheeler represents a centuries-old tradition which includes Vermeer, Chardin, and Cezanne. He has updated it by modifying it in the light of 20th century formal discoveries and attitudes, but it is solidly traditional nevertheless.

The Moholy-Nagy, on the other hand, represents a new beginning. His tentative ventures beyond the historical borders of painting have resulted in few dramatic changes in our overall perception of art. Except as teacher and catalyst, his influence has been minimal. And yet he represents the tradition of art in this century which feels it must push forward and beyond at all costs.

What interests me most of all is how well Sheeler looks today even though he was, in 20th-century terms, a conservative. And how serene Moholy-Nagy looks today even though he was a revolutionary.

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