Fun and games come to American art - and high time

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Fun and games have entered American art. It's about time, for the only real fun we've had in art in recent years has come from the mobiles of Alexander Calder and a few of the drawings of Saul Steinberg. True enough, there was some wit and humor in the art of the depression years - especially in the prints of Peggy Bacon, Adolf Dehn, Wanda Gag, Grant Wood, etc. And a few artists here and there since then have seen fit to crack a pictorial joke or include a bit of sly humor in their work. But it was all, by and large, rather sharp and caustic.

What was lacking then, and is still resisted in certain quarters today, is an art of pure, unadulterated fun.

The reason, of course, is that we've taken art much too seriously and see it almost exclusively in staid and solemn terms. Thus we respect a frown in art more than a smile, see solemnity as more important that joy, and believe that artistic truth is monumental and ennobling - if not actually tragic. That's all nonsense. Art can be anything that's human. But it does indicate the climate in which American art existed from its inception until only a few short years ago.

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Pop art, in the early 1960s, rebelled against this solemn aspect of American art and cracked it wide open for the invasion of a wide variety of funny, witty, derisive, and sometimes wild-and-wooly styles. These ran the gamut from Red Grooms's exuberantly fun-filled and elaborately three-dimensional celebrations of American life, to the wildly madcap works of Robert Beauchamp, Gaylen Hansen, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson, and Peter Saul - from the bright and colorful sculptures of Marisol to the grossly Rabelaisian, private-joke paintings of Philip Guston in his later years.

The proliferation of this kind of art continues on unabated. Attend the shows of a dozen new artists and roughly a quarter of them will be light-spirited or even downright merry. Museum shows are no exception. From the Whitney Museum's Biennial Exhibitions to the various new-talent shows at the Guggenheim Museum (or any of the other major museums around the country), wit and satire will often be found, if not in wild profusion, then certainly in full attendance.

I am particularly delighted that this lighthearted attitude has also extended itself to work that is nominally or totally abstract, and that painterly friskiness has finally been permitted its place in the sun. It is good that we are beginning to pay attention to the prancing joyfulness of artists like Ida Kohlmeyer and Ynez Johnston and to the lyrical exuberances of such creators as Nancy Graves, Brian Conley, David Stoltz, Mark Schlesinger, Andrew Tavarelli, and Dorothy Gillespie - to name only a few.

Joyousness and exuberance in art should be encouraged, not patronizingly described as ''refreshing,'' ''delightful,'' or ''charming'' - and then pigeonholed as of minor or secondary importance. We must not forget that all attempts to dismiss Calder as ''childish'' or ''merely fun'' during the 1930s and 1940s failed miserably. He not only held his own beautifully but may well end up as one of the two or three most important American artists of the century - if not the most important of all.

I hope we've also learned our lesson from other examples of the recent past. From the playful eccentricities of Picasso, the lyrical celebrations of Chagall, the coloristic explosions of Matisse, and the wild good humor of Klee and Miro.

These artists were in the forefront of an approach to art that lightened the spirit and delighted the heart of 20th-century modernism. It set the course for a variety of individual styles that poked good-natured fun at man's peculiarities and reveled in what his imagination and good faith could produce. Without them, the art of our day would have been formal and grim indeed.

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