The many masks of modern art

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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.

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.

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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.

Their ambition for their art is limitless. Even after 20, 30, or 40 difficult years, they still somehow see their art as freshly and as idealistically as they did when they were just out of art school.

Ed Meneeley is one such artist. Like so many of them, his involvement with art goes back several decades - to 1947, to be precise. That was the year he was discharged from the Navy, enrolled as an art student in his hometown, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and started traveling to New York in order to study the art hanging in its museums.

His first major influences were Malevich and Mondrian, followed by Franz Kline. In the latter case, what began as respect for the work of an older artist soon blossomed into a friendship as well. Meneeley discovered that Kline was also from Wilkes-Barre, and he made a point of meeting him.

From then on, Meneeley's career began to take shape. He held his first one-man show in Philadelphia in 1952, moved permanently to New York in 1955, began part-time work with photographic specialists in order to learn animation and color techniques, and set up the Portable Gallery Press with the support of New York dealers to expand archive services on contemporary artists.

His first New York one-man show was held in 1962, to good critical response. It was followed by several others, both in New York and in London (where he lived and worked from time to time). Since then his work has been seen in various major museums, and has gone into the collections of many of them, including the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Victoria and Albert, and the Tate.

All this, however, merely scratches the surface of Meneeley's almost 35-year involvement with art. He has also taught art, served as corporate consultant for the purchase of art, published audiovisual materials for art education, served as exhibitions adviser to galleries, and, at various times, has also served as editor, photography editor, commercial photographer, and production manager on various projects dealing with art.

He has, in other words, ''paid his dues,'' and is one of those artists upon whom the art world depends for much of its integrity, identity, character, and color.

Now I know that, despite his individual successes, his exhibitions, museum sales, peer acceptance, and creative talent and integrity, there will be those who will consider Ed Meneeley a failure simply because he is neither world-famous nor wealthy because of his art.

I couldn't disagree more. Where in the world did we get this notion that an artist must be either a Picasso or a Matisse - or even a Hopper or a Johns - or nothing? Who decided that an artist will have a genuine and respected identity only if he is famous, rich, and imitated by art students? And that everyone else , no matter how excellent his work, lives in a never-never land of perpetual failure and disgrace - except possibly those still young enough to be able to pull themselves out of such a horrible fate?

What other profession would stand for it if only 1/100th of 1 percent of its members were considered worthwhile and all the rest were seen as little more than worthless, self-centered failures? None, I'm certain!

And yet that is how we, by and large, judge those who devote their lives to the arts.

In my opinion, artists like Ed Meneeley are truly remarkable individuals. In their total dedication to a creative ideal, in their willingness always to exchange recognition and security for a new idea, and in their fearless probing beyond any and all assurances of success, they stand as the champions of values deeper than success or immediate gratification, and as witnesses that all indeed is not lost.

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