The many masks of modern art

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A friend who had recently seen a contemporary play that had moved him deeply -- that had, in fact, engaged his thoughts and sensibilities for days -- asked me why that type and level of experience were continually denied him when viewing 20th-century painting and sculpture.

He didn't ask it petulantly, or with a superior attitude. If anything, he seemed frustrated and a bit sad. What he obviously missed, and was fairly consistently able to find in the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, El Greco, Goya, and Rodin, was the sort of experience that activated stimulating and crucial questions about man and his ultimate reason for being, and did so directly through the work itself without first demanding explanatory notes or the learned discourses of experts. Confronted by a good contemporary play, my friend's entire being was engaged in a complex series of interior and exterior dialogues which often continued on in his mind for days and even, in some instances, for weeks and months. On the other hand, confronted by a contemporary painting or sculpture, he was left pretty much to fend for himself in front of a few abstract shapes, some interesting color, possibly an exotic surreal image or a coldly realistic portrait -- or then again, what appeared to be a half acre of canvas filed with paint drippings.

Now my friend is neither a simpleton nor someone unfamiliar with pictorial realities. He is a highly intelligent and excellent photographer, whose interest in all the arts is sincere and open. Furthermore, his question is not new to me; it is one I have heard any number of times over the years, and often from bright and knowledgeable people.

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I asked my friend about Kollwitz, Rouault, Beckmann, the early Picasso, and about Bacon and Giacometti. Didn't they move him and trigger the profound sort of interior involvement he found lacking in most modern art? Yes they did, he replied, but only in a very limited and essentially tragic or distorted way. With the possible exception of Kollwitz, these artists did not so much stimulate him to ponder life's deeper issues and realities as to demand that he share with them their more painful and difficult experiences.

But that was not the main problem. What really bothered him was that most modern paintings and scultpures were so thoroughly abstracted from everyday reality that trying to understand and identify with them was like trying to grasp the nature and significance of the ocean from a few grains of salt distilled from it. Or like trying to understand a code without knowing either the code or the language within which it was being sent.

I must admit he has a point -- though not as far as his complaint about the negativism of Rouault, Beckmann, or Bacon is concerned, nor in his wish to be moved in the same fashion by a painting as by a play. It is my opinion that these particular artists argue positively and successfully form life, integrity, and spiritual significance by their dedicated willingness to confront, reconcile , and thus transcend, symbolically, the destructive acids of defeat and despair. And I think that the experience of viewing a play is always different from the experience of viewing a painting, be it on the level of Shakespeare and Rembrandt -- or Albee and Johns.

No, where I think he is close to being on target is in his likening of much of modern art to a code whose key appearsm to be beyond the comprehension of many of us.And in his feeling that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to become as profoundly and totally involved in a modern work as in a Rembrandt or Michelangelo.

The reason for the latter is obvious. Rembrandt and Michelangelo are so very great that only a half-dozen or so other artists come close to being their equals -- and it already seems quite unlikely that this century will be credited with having produced anyone of their caliber. Even Picasso, certainly one of the most overwhelming talents of all time, will, I think, ultimately be seen as Western painting's most precociously gifted prodigy but hardly one of the truly greats. Comparisons, thus, between a modern painting and a work by any of these giants is rather beside the point. And lest the antimodernists gloat over that, it should be made very clear that if the moderns fall somewhat short in this comparison, the nonmoderns fall even more dramatically short.

We come, then, to this matter of modern art as code, as something obscure and hidden from direct and simple examination -- even perhaps as something devious and fraudulent, a trick played upon those of us not perceptive enough to realize that the wool is being pulled over our eyes. I don't know how often the story of the Emperor's clothes has been held up to me as the clue to the nature of modernism. Open your eyes, I am told, and you will see that all this modern art you hold so dear is nothing but illusion and fakery.

Now, while there is some fakery in modernism -- as in every art form -- the vast body of such works is patently (and often painfully) honest. It's not lack of honesty or integrity that creates the problem here but our lack of understanding that modernism is a separate and unique approach to pictorial experience. It is a setm of "codes" or "languages" (since modernism speaks through many different forms) designed to give form and expression to various ideas, ideals, and feelings that certain creators felt could not be articulated in traditional ways. We have also failed to understand that modernism has nothing to do with our previous Western notion that the quality of a work of art depends at least to an extent on how closely it resembles the object or place it represents.

No, modernism is a complex of languages (or codes) which must be learned, just as we learn the equations of science or mathematics. We would not dream of having declared Einstein a fraud on the basis of our failing to understand what he was scribbling on his blackboard, and yet we feel perfectly free to deride or ignore a painter or sculptor trying in his own way to give "abstact" pictorial form to interior realities sensed but not yet seen.

Artists will always seek and insist upon the external realization of their internal realities. Bruno La Verdiere is such an artist, a sculptor whose extremely simple and "abstract" images bear only the vaguest resemblance to anything else, yet which evoke the subtlest and most persistent feelings about the nature, quality, and ultimate disposition of human life. In the deepest sense, his art is a code designed to transmit intimations of immortality.

I find it impossible to approach his works without sensing their integrity and deep seriousness, their demand that I leave fun and casualness behind and shift into at least a mildly contemplative frame of mind. La Verdiere himself is of a philosophical and speculative nature -- he was a Benedictine monk for 14 years -- but this quality would not come across if it hadn't first been successfully translated into clay and steel.

Not only does this need for a contemplative mood communicate itself to me, I also rapidly find myself engaged in trying to account for various feelings and allusions triggered within me by viewing the work. And then, before I know it, I'm engaged in a deep and deeply satisfying interior dialogue with it and with myself about who, what, and why I am.

To me, this kind of dialogue is as satisfying and significant as any I had with a contemporary play or book. This indicates to me that highly abstract "obscure" forms dom have the expressive potential of any other kind of form or image as long as the person who shapes them is indeed an artist, and as long as we take the trouble to learn his "code" or "lunguage."

As to greatness, well, that may be another matter. I for one suspect that the very greatest paintings and sculptures will always stay very close to the human face or form. And yet, who knows . . .? The next article in this series appears on August 4.m

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