The many masks of modern art

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One of the most welcome things about much of the newer art emerging today is its freshness and exuberance, its crispness -- and the way it sparkles with life. Those who paint "realistically" do so without the anxieties and guilts of their elders, who often felt that to paint in that fashion was in some odd way a betrayal of their identity and authenticity as 20th-century creators. And those who paint in any of the "nonrepresentation" modes do so with a directness and verve seldom seen since the late 1950s.

Although there is a great deal of complaining going on in critical and curatorial circles about the confusion art seems to be in today -- and a great deal of envious finger-pointing to the glories of the recent past --simply that painting is slowly shaking itself free from the extraordinarily heady experience of living through almost a century of modernism, and is rather nervously awakening to the first glimmerings of a new period in art.

Modernism, quite simply, has been a nighttime and essentially interior experience, one full of dreams (and nightmares), ideals, and absolutes, with more than its share of demons and saints, dogmas, damnations, and salvations. Its greatest moments, Fauvism, Cubism, Constructivism, Expressionism, Surrealism , Neo-Plasticism, Abstract-Expressionism, Conceptualism, etc., have all been creatures of the mind and of our interior sensibilities, products of a collective creative will that sought its truths with eyes shut -- except for the sideways glance to see what the other fellow was doing.

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After the bright and sunny noontime of Impressionism, and the late afternoon glow of Cezanne and Van Gogh, painting withdrew into the shade of evening, and then into the deepest realities of the night. Edvard Munch cried out for all of us, with the terror born of new and only partly understood perceptions, and his cry haunted us and haunted our art until it lost itself somewhere in the passions and the dramatic wilds of Abstract-Expressionism.

Now I realize that this reading of recent art history suggests an oversimplification, that by emphasizing modernism's emotional content rather than its structurally innovative and highly formal nature, I appear to be viewing the art of this century in the light of its occasional tendency toward hysteria rather than in the light of its brilliances and extraordinary originality. And that, as a result, I ignore, and possibly even deny, the large bulk of what constitutes its genius.

That is not my intention. My sense of awe at what this century has produced in the way of original and innovative art remains as great as ever. In fact I suspect that the art of this century will fertilize the art of the future in ways we cannot as yet imagine.What I would like to point out, however, is that we are delaying the advance of that art by our continuing preoccupations with the "how" and "what" of art -- its mechanics --and by not paying sufficient attention to its "why" -- its primary reasons for being. And by our insistence that art be played according to the rules set up by previous generations rather than according to the artists' intuitions and insights.

It should be fairly obvious by now that much of today's most highly regarded art shows increasing symptoms of being little more than the recycled art of 5, 10 or 20 years ago; that it is caught in a rut, and that with very few exceptions it is, like a phonograph record whose needle is stuck, going around, and around, and around. . . .

And that even when attempts are made to get out of this rut -- as Frank Stella did in his most recent works -- the attempt is still being made in the "old" way, by, as in his case, seeking greater density and ambiguity rather than opting for greater clarity or simplicity.

Fortunately, not everyone sees it that way, especially many of the very young artists still getting their feet wet, and a few of the older ones who have evolved to the point where they are now free to kick off all traces of formal dogma or technical constraint, and to attack their art with the utmost simplicity and directness.

Ida Kohlmeyer is one of these artists. She is a painter of such freshness and exuberance that I was convinced upon first seeing her work a few years ago that she was one of the new crop of youngsters bursting upon the scene. I was particularly impressed by the vitality of her color and by the directness of her touch, qualities which caused her paintings to appear as bright and colorful as a bouquet of flowers, and as immediate as a smile or a friendly hansshake.

I soon discovered, however, that she was been around for quite some time, that she had, at one point, been a student of Hans Hofmann and had both known and been influenced by Mark Rothko -- that she was, in other words, a veteran painter.

But, although that was the case, it didn't show in her work -- which was as fresh as a daisy and free of all evidence of heavy-handed professionalism or the desire to show off acquired skills. While it appeared as simple as a child's it proved upon closer examination to be as subtly and shrewdly painted as many a work that loudly proclaimed its complexity and importance.

I'm sorry that the painting reproduced on this page cannot be in color, for color is Kohlmeyer's greatest asset and the element, above all else, that makes her work sing. "Circus Series No. 3" consists of 36 squares, each of which contains at least two colors -- most of them bright, even, at times "hot." This means that roughly 100 bright and intense colors are pulsating away within the larger square of the composition. And yet they are kept in perfect -- if lively --relationship wth the form and the colors in its own square, relates beautifully with the others in its sector, and holds its own perfectly within the composition as a whole. The overall effect is of casual, informal, vibrant colorfulness -- of great joy and fun.

The squiggles and simple forms within the squares add their own particular quality to this effect, for they manage to intrigue the eye just enough to add a tiny bit of visual counterpoint. They are emphatic and clearly defined enough to help cushion the colors, and yet are not so precisely detailed as to isolate and separate them from one another completely.

I've made it a point to follow Ida Kohlmeyer's work, and it's a pleasure to report that her paintings become simpler, more exuberant, and more sprightly all the time. And that she more than ever shares with her younger contemporaries the conviction that life and vitality belong emphatically in art. While this "younger" art may not yet (or may never) have the depth or monumentality of Modernism's masterpieces, it does, on the other hand, partake of their vivacity and sense of the new.

By emphasizing the freshness, the joy, and the guiltlessness of art, painters like Ida Kohlmeyer -- and all her contemporaries, young or old, who feel as she does -- are helping to advance this new dawning, this new adventure in art. That may sound overly optimistic and highly romantic, but then, new beginnings generally do.

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