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The many masks of modern art

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But it's geometry which playfully calls attention to itself rather than modestly sinking out of sight to serve as the painting's invisible scaffolding. For this is an art which puts as much emphasis upon its geometric skeleton as upon its subject matter. And which makes as much fuss over the near-abstract patterning and shape of the violinist's coat as it does over his humanity and character.

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This is an art which plays both ends against the middle, and which carries it off with great aplomb, wit, and style. It's a highwire act in which the rich, deep sentiment of Chagall's Jewish heritage is played off against the crisp, pragmatic formalism of 20th century, post-cezanne art. And in which both, as a result, are given new dimensions of meaning.

Chagall, through his art, humanized Fauvism and Cubism, and brought some of the rich Jewish folklore of his Russian background to the attention of the world at large. And he did this with such joy and great good humor that his art, which at times touched greatness, always remained human and accessible.

Small wonder, then, that he should prove so popular, and that his paintings and prints should be known and loved throughout the world.

But there was trouble in paradise, and it took the form of a too easy facility, and Chagall's apparent belief in the myth of his own creative infallibilty. In the course of producing the increasingly vast numbers of paintings and prints his collectors began to demand in the 1950s, Chagall began to grow careless and casual in his approach to his work. But who was to tell at first, for his pictures were so full of fun and life, so colorful and warm, that this carelessness was generally perceived as one more bit of evidence that he was one of the few major contemporary artists who put human and sentimental values before formal ones. And that his repetition of subjects and forms, his increasingly sketchy technique, were proof of his genius rathern than an indication of painterly flaccidity and artistic evasion.

Whereas the power and effectiveness of his earlier work had resulted from his extraordinary ability to fuse exotic subject matter, sumptuous color, and strict compositional control into powerful and even, at times, magnificent works of art , these later works, increasingly dependent upon tried-and-proven Chagall images , a few scratchy lines, and a dozen or so areas of bright colors, ended up as little more than pretty and rather spry decorative works.

This is especially true of his color lithographs, which have become such a staple of the contemporary fine print market. Bright, colorful, open, and very expensive, these prints can be found wherever original prints are sold. Although they no longer have quite the status which the prints of Johns, Dine, Warhol, rauschenberg, for example, now enjoy, they still hold their own among vast numbers of serious collectors around the world, and are as much in demand as ever.

I'm not by any means trying to say that Chagall is not a very major 20 th-century artist, only that overproduction and carelessness have recently caused him to water down his art to the point where his later works are barely half as good as those done during the first 40 or so years of his career. He brings into sharp relief the fact that we must not allow our overall affection for an artist to becloud our critical judgment of his work. We do not honor an artist if we support him in his weaknesses and evasions --we honor him only if he is stirred to do his best.