In world art, US now shares its top spot with Germany, Italy

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American dominance of world art has almost certainly ended.

No longer, at least, do a handful of American painters and sculptors -- such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Jim Dine -- set the international style as they did, roughly, from 1950 to 1975. And few American dealers, curators, and critics are looked upon any longer by the international art community as the final arbiters of what is relevant, validly up to date, or good in contemporary art.

Instead, ''advanced'' American art is increasingly finding itself forced to share the glamour spotlight with Italy and Germany, and warily to await the very possible elevation to full ''equality'' of Spain, France, England, and Canada -- or any number of other countries.

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This change in status should come as no surprise. It was imminent for over a decade, and was, in fact, already assumed to have taken place at the start of the 1970s by the Germans, who felt -- thanks to the world reputation of Joseph Beuys -- that they had moved into that premier spot.

While the German avant-garde attracted a few passionate devotees, however, it did not really catch on -- most probably because of its highly volatile political and social nature, and because most members of the art community saw it as more activist than aesthetic in orientation. As a result, international leadership in art remained unclear, even though the United States, because of its earlier position, was still given the edge.

All this while new things -- or rather old modernist ideas and attitudes demanding reemphasis -- were bubbling away just beneath the surface. These notions weren't limited to the artists of one country, however, but were spread out among a number of particularly restless creative souls throughout Europe and America.

The problem facing these artists was that painting's energy, as well as its historical momentum, seemed spent. Painting, it was claimed, was dead -- or was limited to a dry and muted form of abstraction or representationalism whose identity was more geometric or photographic than painterly. It was also claimed that photography had finally won the battle for visual-art supremacy, that video-art, multimedia events, and complex environmental works had replaced painting as a crucial cultural artistic mode.

To all this, these various creative individuals cried ''Nonsense!'' -- and proceeded to try to prove their point by painting intensely direct representational canvases in which people and things were given painterly life through eruptively ''hot'' colors, blatant and often ''childishly'' distorted drawing, and themes that were, if not downright vulgar and perverse, then certainly close to it.

This ''new'' form of painting popped up quite simultaneously in Germany, Italy, and the US -- although it was in Germany that it seemed the most fully developed and the most carefully thought out. But then, that seems logical enough, considering it had been Germany (together with Austria) that had fathered expressionism in the first place several decades before.

This ''neo-expressionism'' exploded upon the German art scene at the very end of the 1970s, and by 1981 was an international phenomenon. Its descent upon the American art world had to wait a few months, however, while New York braced itself for the invasion of the ''new'' Italian painting. This equally violent, colorful, and often brutally distorted approach differed only slightly from what Germany was producing, and then because of its occasional dependence upon vaguely classical forms and on some of de Chirico's later and more rubbery works.

The artistic pendulum had once again swung dramaticaly from one extreme to the other. This time it had opted for passion and vulgarity over detachment and refinement. This time it was a bit different, however, for it happened simultaneously throughout the Western world -- the result, no doubt, of rapid communication and good publicity, and of the fact that the world art community was by this time much more like a big family than ever before.

This universal surge toward passion and directness made a great deal of sense. The art world was quite simply starved for emotion. With the exception of a few rugged individualists such as Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and Jean Dubuffet, painting, since abstract-expressionism's demise in the mid-1950s, had been cool, sardonic, geometric, anti-emotive - even, at times, classically serene. This emotional detachment extended to everything from minimalism to photo-realism, and from earth-art to art based on neon-tubing and layers and chunks of felt or fat.

Things were bound to change, and they did, suddenly and dramatically, with the emergence of this ''new'' painting. The art world had expected a mild corrective, a modest evolutionary ''advance.'' What it got was an art that was violent, vulgar, ugly, and generally tasteless.

Or so it seemed. At any rate, the art world, as a whole, was outraged. At the same time, it felt a bit anxious. Who knew, after all, what wild and woolly things would next be legitimized as art? Hadn't we all been taught to laugh at the critics who had failed to understand impressionism, cubism, fauvism, abstract-expressionism, etc., when they had first appeared? Hadn't the ''new'' always won out in the end, and hadn't everyone who had stood in its way ended up ridiculed and despised?

In the face of all this, who would dare stick his neck out and cry, ''Enough! We've had enough of this extremism!'' And if anyone did, on what grounds could he legitimately base his objections in a period when the philosophy of art is generally as passive as a cork tossed about on a stormy sea?

The immediate answer, of course, is to try to look at this art as merely the latest phase of the century-old ongoing modernist dialogue - and to try to judge individual works on individual merit. It is already possible, for instance, to separate some of the potentially more significant artists from some of those who are merely trendy, and to differentiate between what is positive and what is retrogressive in those whose art is still tentative.

Thus, among the Germans, Peter Pick, Peter Angermann, Jorg Immendorff, and A. R. Penck appear to have the edge at this time. While among the Italians, Nino Longobardi, Sandro Chia, and Francesco Clemente appear strong, and Enzo Cucchi appears to be the least significant.

As for the Americans, I've seen a few good - and many more downright silly - works by David Salle and Julian Schnabel, some very lively and promising paintings by Michael McClard and Jean Michel Basquiat, and some truly dreadful things by Jedd Garet and Jonathan Borofsky.

But while this preliminary sorting-out may be the immediate answer, the real, long-range solution is not that simple. To find it, our culture will have to learn to look at art from a much broader perspective than that provided by strictly 20th-century modernist ideas. And that, to be blunt, is precisely our culture's problem. We are stuck in a rut, and haven't the sense to see that our extremist ''solutions'' are only forcing us deeper and deeper into that rut. At a time when hundreds of our younger artists are trying to fight clear of this perennial swing from one extreme to another, we still maintain that ritual of the pendulum as the prime determinant of what achieves the highest status and the greatest financial gains.

Even so, extreme and vulgar as this ''new'' art may be, it has given painting back some of its passion, impact, and painterly identity. For that we should be grateful. I only hope that we will now be able to distinguish the good it contains from the bad - and build creatively upon it.

An excellent exhibition for anyone eager to see what this ''new'' painting is all about is currently on view at the Marlborough Gallery here. ''The Pressure to Paint'' is an international selection of works by this ''movement's'' major figures, and is, without doubt, one of the most interesting and important shows of the past two or three seasons.

Although it is scheduled to close on July 9, there is a chance that it might remain open a bit longer.

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