When Durer finished his ''Young Hare'' in 1502, he had produced as original and revolutionary a work of art as the world had seen. And that was true even though it was only a very literal depiction of a small, furry animal.
It was exceptional because it was a great artist's most successful attempt so far to draw a living creature precisely as it appeared, and without reference to classical, formal ideals or traditional stylizations.
Durer had really looked at the rabbit, and then had really drawn what he had seen. The result: a breathtakingly alive study, complete down to every twitching whisker and tuft of soft, rumpled fur.
It was an act of genius of the highest order - not as great as the monumental achievements of Giotto, Michelangelo, or Cezanne, but every bit as important in its own way as a crucial step toward the realization of modern man's perceptual ideals.
To accomplish it, Durer had to remove all memories of previous animal drawings, any curiosity about how van Eyck or Leonardo might have drawn the rabbit, any desire to create a great drawing in the classical tradition. He had to strip away all preconceptions about line and color, all learned notions about how an animal should be drawn, and to open himself up without reservation to seeing precisely what lay in front of him.
It was revolutionary both as an idea and as an act. It confirmed that significant artistic truth could be found in nature as well as in tradition, or in a formal ideal. Henceforth, art would produce more in the way of precise depictions of nature. This idea would flower in the 17th to 19th centuries, have its last great moment with the Impressionists, and then be superceded by the vision of Cezanne and the other modernists.
I've been thinking about Durer's rabbit a great deal lately while making my gallery rounds - and about the other art-historical moments when the old was challenged by the new. I'm particularly reminded of the middle 1940s, when the American art world was stunned by the first indications that Abstract Expressionism was about to change the face of American art - and of the late 1950s when Pop Art announced that it was taking over.
I remember how played-out and unfocused the art world was before those events , how ripe and eager it was for a change. There is much the same restless spirit in the art world today, especially in New York's SoHo district, where time seems to have stood still these past two years, and where I have to continually remind myself that this is indeed the 1980s, and not the 1960s or 1970s.
For the first time in my memory, a day spent in SoHo looking at the art on display there is a depressing experience. As a rule, the best art on view, in this supposed hotbed of American art, has roots that go back at least one or two decades. The worst is art that is loudly acclaimed as the very new, the very ''now.''
Much of what seems new, in fact, is the last gasp of something generations old. Much of what appears traditional is actually spanking new. That we don't notice this is not surprising, for we seldom really lookm at art. It's so much easier to judge it by whether or not it represents an approved style or movement. We forget that art is extraordinarily complex, that it will seek out whatever is life-generating, no matter in what form it appears.
Art is capable, for instance, of pointing north when it is obvious to everyone that the future will appear in the south. It has done so over and over again at precisely those moments when everything seemed most secure. I remember very vividly how smug American painting was toward the end of World War II, and how abruptly that smugness was dispelled by the early canvases of the Abstract Expressionists.
Although hardly anyone, at first, realized that those wild and woolly works were, at that moment, the most advanced expressions of 20th-century art, history has proven that they were - just as Durer's ''Young Hare'' was of the ''avant garde'' in 1502. Cezanne's paintings of apples and mountains occupied that position a century ago.
Art has a genius for making fools of us whenever we become too dogmatic. It opens doors into the future where we least expect them. In 1502, the most advanced art was breathtakingly realistic, and in 1946 it was totally abstract.
The issue of where art is going weighs heavily on most of today's artists. Painters and sculptors are pushing their art often to ridiculous extremes in a mad attempt to anticipate - and thus to claim - the future. Much of the art world unfortunately resembles a huge gambling casino, where some of today's best talent is being thrown away in pursuit of a totally imaginary tomorrow.
I disagee, however, with those of my fellow art professionals who feel discouraged about the overall state of art today. I see too many positive signs that things are slowly beginning to improve. An increasing number of our younger artists are refusing to leapfrog over the present in order to secure a foothold in the future. And an impressive number of our older artists are consolidating their creative resources to shape art of character and substance. But most of all, there is an increased awareness that art must be allowed to go its own way.
The irony is that the future cannot be bought or won. It must be earned totally in the present. Art will have the last laugh - just as it did at the end of the 19th century at the expense of the academic art community for believing it alone had found the secret of artistic truth and future glory - without recognizing the genuis of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
Art is preparing to laugh at us once again, although none of us knows precisely when or where. I know only that it will happen, and that it will be at least as loud a guffaw as we heard in 1946 - and possibly even as loud as the one heard during the time of Cezanne and Picasso. The signs are all around us, from the desperate antics of many of our newly appointed ''important'' artists to our general inability to view today's art except in the most superficial of terms. Something is dying, and although I do not by any means believe it is modernism, it certainly is related in some fashion to what modernism has become.
But there ism good art to be seen, if we are willing to look for it wherever it is shown, and not only in the most fashionable or ''in'' galleries. In New York, for instance, it pays to wander around some of the side streets just off Madison Avenue and 57th Street - the two major uptown art thoroughfares - and really to walk around SoHo, NoHo, and Tribeca, even though that means trudging miles and climbing numberless stairs. It's worth it. A great deal of good art can be found that way.
I also recommend ignoring guide and art-history books, and simply lookingm at art. It's amazing how much can ''come through'' if we let that happen.
As a matter of fact, I cannot recommend looking at art too highly. It is something we all do much too infrequently - and then only after conquering a considerable amount of reluctance. If we all did more of it, and then had the courage to express our feelings in public, our art might be better off. It probably would, for one thing, be more genuinely a part of all our lives, instead of something created, on its most demanding levels, by and for a handful of artists desperately competing for a few paragraphs in tomorrow's art-history books.