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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / November 24, 1981

Some of my very favorite artists are totally unknown to the general public - even though they have been creating art for decades, have exhibited in museums and galleries, had successful one-man shows, and have sold their work to serious collectors.

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One could, as a matter of fact, assemble an exhibition of these artists' work that would set the art world on its ear, and prove once and for all that there is a great deal more good art being produced today than we know about or care to acknowledge.

For one thing, we tend to forget that the big names represent only an insignificant fraction of the total number of good, solid artists working today. For another, we dismiss as of no importance or relevance the many artists scattered throughout this country who never wanted a New York-based career in art, who developed instead a highly personal and locally oriented art that is often extraordinary - if possibly not in line with big-city objectives.

Almost every community has at least one artist of local fame who has never seriously considered moving to one or the other of the major art centers, or even sending his art there for exhibition or approval. To these artists, creating art is not a matter of adjusting to great cultural or art-historical forces, or of assimilating one or another of the day's dominant styles. It is, rather, a matter of translating everyday experience and observation - as well as fantasies and dreams - into clearly understood pictures or pieces of sculpture. And these can as easily be works of considerable sophistication, as of imaginative or simple naivete, for it is no longer realistic to assume that people, no matter how far out into the country or deep into the woods they may be, are ignorant of what is going on in New York - or in Paris, London, or Tokyo , for that matter.

At the same time there are serious artists working in the major art centers - as well as on the numerous art school faculties throughout this country - who, for one reason or another, never quite established themselves as important figures.

They may have come very close, may even at one time have been considered among the most promising artists of their day, or may actually have been dominant figures in one or another of the many short-lived movements that dot the history of 20th-century art. Or, sadder still, they may even have been famous and successful until the style within which they worked fell out of fashion, and they themselves fell out of favor.

But the most interesting of all are those who remain actively on the creative and professional front lines, as it were, for decades, and who, during all that time, fluctuate between being well known, forgotten, respected, ignored, looked upon as promising or as over the hill or even, at moments, as someone quite famous.

I know quite a few of them. They teach, make signs, do framing, stretch other artists' canvases, serve as waiters, paint apartments, sell shoes, serve as building superintendents - you name it, and somewhere one of them is hard at work doing just that to survive.

There is nothing romantic about it. They know what they have to do to continue creating, and they do it.

These artists are indeed the survivors, the battlers, the true professionals. They are also, in many ways, the true believers. For it is they who generally keep the faith, regardless of cost. They are the ones who insist on standards, who see art as a matter of continuity as well as effectiveness, and who remind both the overnight success and the uncritical public that art is a profoundly important matter that goes way beyond sensation, wealth, success, or adulation: that art is, in other words, worth devoting one's life to, even if it results in a minimum of financial security or recognition.