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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore Wolff / March 23, 1982

Art is seldom what it seems. The paintings of Vermeer, for instance, appear at first glance to be merely simple and straightforward depictions of subtly lit interiors in which one or two people are going about their ordinary, everyday business. We understand immediately that the dignified matron in the blue jacket is reading a letter, that the young woman bent over a table is making lace, and that the servant girl is pouring milk from a pitcher. And because all that seems obvious enough, we assume that we get the point of each painting, and understand well enough what Vermeer was trying to do.

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Actually, such a reading of Vermeer's art is as incomplete, and thus as inaccurate, as defining a bird as a creature that can walk, and a tree as something that exists partly underground.

Just so with Vermeer. The matron reading the letter and the servant pouring milk are only the surface features of his art. What these works are actually about includes complex and highly sophisticated formal and technical matters, profound levels of awareness of life, quality, form, and significance, and an awesome ability to translate the artist's sense of the actuality of his existence into paint.

Vermeer's art, in other words, is the distillation and projection of a great 17th-century Dutch artist's experiencem of life into a pictorial form. Because he is great, his art is capable of reactivating much of the actuality of that experience for others -- regardless of how removed in time they are. Consequently, the particular person or object depicted serves mainly as a subtle convenience, as a point of identification for the viewer, in the complex process of bridging time and space.

And much the same applies to other ''obvious'' art -- from Raphael to Rubens, from Monet to Hopper. What our eyes see is only the merest fraction of what a painting is all about. And so our first obligation is to look behind and underneath the obvious, to try to make contact with the substance of what lies in the work before us. Only if we do so will we be fully able to receive what the artist has to give.

This probing process varies from artist to artist and between styles. A large figure of an Egyptian Pharaoh obviously conveys something very different from a large Henry Moore bronze. And a Rembrandt painting of a man will ''say'' something very unlike the quality transmitted by a Van Dyck.

On the other hand, Vermeer and Mondrian are much closer in spirit than their dramatically different styles would indicate. As indeed are Poussin and Cezanne, Rubens and Pollock, Blake and Klee.

Art, in other words, is an enigma, a paradox, even at times an outright evasion. It is multifaceted and multidimensional, and can, at one and the same time, be one particular artist's most private and individual confession -- and Everyman's universal statement of truth.

This is particularly true of 20th-century art, which seems, at times, to take a rather perverse delight in playing tricks with questions of intent and meaning. It would be a serious mistake, for instance, to confuse Cubism (especially its analytic phase) with Constructivism. Both are geometric and flat , but only Constructivism is about the relationship of geometric forms upon and within a flat surface. Cubism, predicated as it was upon a new perception of space and time, is really about the translation of what we both see and what we know of an object in space and time into two-dimensional geometric forms.

Similarly, the stark and uncompromisingly painted heads of Lucian Freud and Chuck Close, while superficially very much alike, actually represent widely divergent points of view. Freud, being a realist and a humanist, tells us in very precise terms what his models look like and how they function as human beings. Close, on the other hand, being more concerned with startling pictorial effectiveness and certain issues of modernism, chooses his models more for their pictorial effect, their blatant ''ordinariness,'' than for their humanity or character.