The many masks of modern art

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Quality is a difficult thing to define in art. There are those who claim it is primarily determined by extraordinary skill. Others see it in terms of grand or ennobling subjects, fulfillment or furtherance of tradition, or the degree to which a work probes into new and uncharted territory.

Some see it as consistency and integrity of form, harmony of mood, or subtlety or exquisiteness of touch. And a few insist that it can only come into being through a particular idea, dogma, or philosophy.

Actually, all the above (and a few others) apply at one time or another. Durer, for instance, was so breathtakingly skilled - especially as an engraver - that his identity and the quality of his art are irrevocably tied in with that skill. And there is no doubt that much of the quality in Giotto's, Leonardo's, and Poussin's art derives from their grand and noble themes, whereas Michelangelo's and Cezanne's greatness results to a large extent from the manner in which they both fulfilled and furthered the traditions into which they were born.

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Picasso, Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock, and Bacon probed into new and uncharted territory, and much of the quality of their art is defined by their creative courage and pioneering spirit.

Braque, Leger, and Brancusi represent integrity and consistency of form; Friedrich, Munch, and Rothko, harmony of mood; and Redon, Whistler, and Klee, exquisiteness of touch.

And for dogma we have, among others, the Italian futurists, and the American second-generation Abstract Expressionists, both of whom felt that there was no other path toward art but their own.

There have been those, on the other hand, who sought art and quality by following no set path, and who chose to pick carefully their own very private way between complex clusters of alternatives. They produced, as a result, art of profound individuality, integrity, and quality.

A prime example of this type of artist is Giorgio Morandi, a painter and etcher of still lifes and landscapes who will most assuredly go down in history books as one of the few true masters of the 20th century.

What Morandi was able to do with a few bowls, bottles, boxes, and, here and there, a vase of flowers is almost beyond belief. The Morandi exhibition organized by the Des Moines Art Center and currently on view at New York's Guggenheim Museum consists largely of such simple objects lined up on canvas after canvas, and yet the overall effect is profoundly moving and complex.

Leaving the exhibition, I felt the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from encountering evidence of great integrity and dedication, as well as that marvelous sense of harmony and focus that comes from experiencing art that is all of a piece, for it represents a lifetime of giving form to intuitions of what is significant and timeless about life.

Above all, a Morandi painting is classically serene; it suggests that both eternity and perfection actually exist. His simple objects, when arrayed upon a canvas, assume a monumentality totally out of proportion to their actual size. Some compositions, when viewed through half-shut eyes, resemble Stonehenge. Others give the impression of classical temples seen at twilight, or, more particularly, Greek or Roman marble fragments lined up against a still-standing portion of a Corinthian or Doric column.

These qualities are subtle and subterranean. We sense them rather than see them. What we do see are small, spare, almost monochromatic paintings whose overall tonality and atmosphere may conjure up memories of the art of Vermeer and Chardin, but whose stark frontality has very little precedent in Western representational art.

At first glance we don't know what to make of these scraggly lines of objects that resemble nothing so much as groups of raw Army recruits lined up for their first inspection. Where, we ask, are the complex dramas we have come to expect from the still lifes of the 17th-century Dutch, from Chardin, and, most particularly, from Cezanne? The elaborate compositions, richly textured surfaces , and carefully controlled spatial progressions? And what's more, why does Morandi paint basically the same set of objects within the same frontal format over and over again, to the point where we begin to wonder if he isn't stuck in a rut or is totally lacking in imagination?

The answers to these questions revolve around Morandi's creative motivations. He was not, as were the 17th-century Dutch still life painters, trying to create images of physical opulence and material well-being as evidence of the worldly success of his patrons. Nor was he interested in giving form to notions of order within a petit bourgeois context, as was Chardin. And neither was he concerned with the kind of architectonic formal vision that so obsessed Cezanne.

What did concern him, and caused him, as a result, to see painting more as reverential ritual than rendering, was the notion that art was devotional and contemplative in nature - was very close to prayer - and that what mattered was making contact through painting with the divine, the universal, or the ideal. It was not the display of physical opulence nor the articulation of a new level of formal order.

To such an artist, the act of painting is a crucial - possibly the most crucial - channel of communication with the all-encompassing, the absolute. And every new painting is another attempt to perceive and to make contact with that ultimate level of truth.

Such an artist, having gradually evolved the formal and symbolic means most appropriate to his own vision of divine order or significance, does not then need to alter or embroider them. On the contrary, his impulse will be to simplify and to perfect them. To clarify them so that his contact with his vision or his ideal will be more immediate and direct.

What matters then is not what the ''subjects'' of his paintings (the bottles, boxes, bowls) are, but the manner in which they are utilized to communicate with those ideals or deeper levels of reality the artist wants to reach. Within this context, the objects themselves become mere conveniences - like words in a prayer - and what matters most is the purity of the artist's intentions and the clarity with which he can fuse those intentions with the physical means at his disposal.

And so Morandi, day after day, year after year, assembled his ''vocabulary'' of humble ''subjects'' on his tabletop and proceeded to paint them, much as others of his Italian contemporaries attended daily mass or worshiped privately or in a church. Now this may appear strange to some and blasphemous to others, but it is what art can mean to some individuals.

The result is an art of exceptional quality and depth, an art that must be approached with much the same sensitivity and reverence that Morandi experienced while producing it. This is not pretty, descriptive, entertaining, decorative, informational, or even inspirational art. It does not sweep us up to emotional heights as does the religious art of El Greco. And neither does it inform us of orthodoxy and dogma as does the art of the Middle Ages or the Italian Renaissance.

What it does do is allow us to participate quietly with an artist of profound integrity and vision in his day-by-day creative activity of trying to contact the divine, and to benefit, thereby, from his lifelong devotion to a particular vision and ideal.

That at least has been my experience. Viewing Morandi's current show at the Guggenheim Museum has been the closest thing to a religious experience I've had with 20th-century art - with the exception of some of the early Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque, the best paintings of Mondrian, and a few of the oils of Rouault.

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