Many masks of modern art

Talent is a peculiar thing. It gives of itself generously to some, and ignores others entirely. It cannot be bought, learned, or acquired through an act of will. It is demanding and relentless, and cannot easily be denied or ignored.

Those who have it must do their best to fulfill it - or spend their lives feeling incomplete. And those who are particularly blessed with it must accept it as a responsibility as well as a source of joy.

Talent is energy seeking direction and form. It fulfills itself by meshing with human activities and goals through the agency of human intelligence and sensibility. It is impersonal and nonjudgmental - unless and until personalized and made judgmental by human warmth and focus.

Talent is an elusive quality that cannot be pinned down. It may manifest itself through skill, but skill is really not what it is about. If it were, manual dexterity and technical brilliance could easily replace talent, and art would become nothing but virtuosity and technique.

Talent is as varied as the human race, and as individual as every member of it. Rubens' artistic talent, for instance, consisted primarily of a spellbinding ability to evoke extraordinarily lively and complex three-dimensional forms and compositions upon a totally flat surface. Matisse's consisted largely of the ability to create pulsatingly vibrant interlocking color forms that were as flat as the surfaces upon which they were painted. For Rubens, drawing meant muscularity and volume, to Matisse it meant linear elegance. No two artists could be more dissimilar, and yet both had talent of the first order.

However, talent isn't everything in art. I doubt, for instance, if anyone ever had more raw artistic talent than Rubens, and yet Cezanne matched (and possibly even surpassed) him in greatness with a talent at best half his in size. And Paul Klee, with a small but persistent talent (that fortunately had the good sense to join forces with his extraordinary intelligence and sensibility), was able to create artistic miracles way beyond the capabilities of more burly but less clearly defined and focused talents.

And finally, talent, like strength or money, is only as good or as important as the person using it. In itself it is worth little, and exists mainly as a potential.

When it came to painterly potential, no other American artist of this century possessed as much of it as did George Bellows. He was a natural, and as talented an artist as America has ever had. That he failed to achieve true artistic greatness remains an authentic American tragedy, and a source of considerable speculation among those who recognize the gap between his potential and what he was actually able to accomplish.

Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1882, and even as a very young boy showed a lively interest in drawing. This, however, was looked down upon as ''sissy stuff'' by his classmates, who ridiculed and ostracized him for his preference for art over sports. He endured several years of this, but somewhere around his twelfth year decided he had had enough, and without dropping his interest in art, resolved to win the respect of his peers through athletics.

It took him a while, but he finally succeeded. By the time he left high school he was his school's star athlete in both baseball and basketball, and his former persecutors had become his best friends.

Having proved himself through sports, Bellows, after a stint at Ohio State University, left for New York in 1904 to study art under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. After working there for two years, he set up his own studio and began his professional career.

In 1908, at the age of twenty-six, Bellows won a prestigious award at the National Academy, and painted the picture illustrated on this page; the following year he was elected an associate academician. In 1910 he was invited to teach drawing at the Art Students League, and in 1913 he helped assemble the famous Armory Show, which introduced modernism to the American public.

By this time he was famous, successful, thirty-one - and considered by many to be not only the most ''red-blooded'' American artist but the most brilliantly gifted younger one as well.

Fame, however, did not slow him down. In 1916 he added the mastery of lithography to his mastery of paint, and very soon became so expert at it that some of his prints now rank among the very best produced in this country.

From then until his death in 1925, Bellows' extraordinary talent and energy manifested themselves in large numbers of paintings and almost two hundred lithographs. In addition, he left many sketches, a few illustrational works, and quite a few highly quotable remarks about art and those who practiced it.

Unfortunately, despite his successes, despite the fact that the Metropolitan Museum honored his memory with a major exhibition of his work shortly after his death and the fact that his paintings and prints now hang in America's best museums, he is generally perceived today as a magnificent talent whose potential was never quite realized.

We cannot even argue that his greatness was cut short by his untimely death, for, with a few exceptions, his later paintings were cold, artificial, and studied. By the mid-1920s, American art was making its final break with the nineteenth century, and Bellows' bravura style of paintings was fast becoming as outdated as the styles of Sargent, Chase, and Henri. Considering his largely anti-modernist sentiments, and the fact that he represented an approach to painting that belonged more to the days of Teddy Roosevelt than to the ''roaring twenties,'' it seems highly unlikely that Bellows could have risen to the occasion once again with truly significant art.

No, Bellows represented and belonged to the period that ''spoke softly but carried a big stick,'' that believed in inevitable progress, and the manly virtues of strength, positivism, and direct action. Hadn't he, after all, proved himself, and established his rights as an artist through a mastery of sports? And didn't he pride himself on the fact that his art was open, bold, and direct, and without the fancy frills to be found in the art of so many of his contemporaries?

Bellows was one of those artists who do not know what to do with their youthful talent once it has fully expressed itself, and gradually begin to demand greater challenges - or to be permitted to go his own way without any responsibility whatever. His greatest artistic successes had come as the result of the most direct creative action, with his talent engaging and mastering whatever problems had lain in his way. All he had had to do was ride his talent as though it were a bucking bronco, and try to keep it directed and reasonably within bounds.

Once the fierce momentum of his talent began to slow down, however, he began to have serious doubts about his direction and the importance of his work. He began to study composition with the belief that if he could compose complex paintings according to certain laws of ''dynamic symmetry,'' his art would become deeper and more universal. The resulting paintings, while interesting in many ways, are also rather pathetic, for in them we see a major talent forcing his subjects and forms to distort themselves artificially in order to conform to geometric formal principles.

Bellows at this point was like a gambler whose run of luck is running out and who turns in desperation to a ''system'' he hopes will bring the same results through calculation. In Bellows' case it didn't work. Most of his later paintings, while still highly accomplished and professional, just didn't have the fire and simple truth that had distinguished his earlier work.

Even so, he remains one of America's major twentieth-century painters, for no one else could transform a glimpse of the Hudson River, a prizefight scene, or large crowds of people as successfully and powerfully into paint as he. The fact that most of his best things were done as a very young man, and that he never quite lived up to his promise, should not blind us to the quality and importance of what he did accomplish.

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