The many masks of modern art

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The future, as I have written before, is calling from several directions, and will take various forms in art. Although we don't yet know precisely what they'll be, it already appears certain that a crisp and lean form of representational painting will be among them, and that Modernism will continue, if only in a modified form.

Also present will be a type of art that would have been totally incomprehensible fifty years ago (except possibly to Picasso, Miro, and a few of the Surrealists) and is still considered ''beyond the pale'' by some members of the art community today.

I am referring to work that is defined neither by its resemblance to nature nor its adherence to a formal ideal. That seems formless, ''spineless,'' and painfully ''organic.'' And that, to the cynical eye, resembles nothing so much as shapeless ''doodles'' of clay, stumps of wood studded with rusty nails and hung with string, yards of dirty, drooping canvas, or huge roots pulled out of the earth and painted yellow or blue.

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The kind of art, in other words, that traces its spiritual ancestry to the sculptural ideas of Eva Hesse and Joseph Bueys, to Jackson Pollock's compulsive eruptions, and beyond them to many of the primal impulses of Surrealism and Dada. An art that finds its identity totally through intuition and curiosity, not accepting the disciplines of geometry or pattern, and that emerges into being through a process that dramatically parallels the actual process of organic growth.

It's difficult for many to accept this kind of work as art because it seems so pointless and formless, so lacking in any evidence of skill or control. Where , they ask, is the proof that human intelligence and sensibility shaped these odd-looking things that look as though they had been picked up out of the street. They couldn't, they insist, have been ''created,'' they could only have ''happened.''

It's an interesting point. If these ''shapeless'' things are art, why wouldn't a pebble, found on a beach, or a piece of gnarled driftwood also be art? If a primary ingredient of art is evidence upon it of human intelligence or sensibility, isn't it crucial that all art bear at least some physical evidence of these qualities?

The answer lies in the type of ''evidence'' we demand, and the particular thematic or formal ideal against which the work is to be judged. For some of us, an incredible amount of ''evidence'' is required before we accept something as art. It must bear proof of extraordinary skill, and be executed in exquisite detail. Or it must magically resemble a real object, person, or place. Or, in the case of an abstraction, it must reflect the formal ideals of the movement to which its creator belongs.

But what if something genuinely new comes along? Something that looks like nothing on earth? How would we determine its legitimacy as art? Against what standards or ideals would we weigh it?

It would be a problem, but not as big a one as it would have been before the time of the Impressionists, when newness in art had a very limited meaning. We today have the ''advantage'' of a cultural prejudice toward the new rather than against it, and would almost certainly give the odd-looking thing before us the benefit of the doubt.

But how would this help us in the long run? Isn't a categorical acceptance of anything new just as bad as an automatic rejection of it? This is a serious matter - especially in a world and at a time that insists that subway graffiti are an important art form that cannot be compared negatively with other forms of art. And that tends to accept the word of every self-proclaimed ''artist'' that whatever he produces is art simply because he says it is.

We are tottering on a razor's edge as far as our perception of new art is concerned. On the one hand, we hate to say ''no'' to the new for fear of thwarting creativity. And, on the other, we hate to say ''yes'' too easily or quickly for fear it would cause our critical standards to erode.

It's a standoff, and a very difficult position for a responsible person to be in. And yet that's precisely where many of us find ourselves these days when confronted by works that appear to lack all intelligible form and purpose, and that seem to have been ''found'' rather than created.

It's a particular problem of mine, since I prefer things to be clear and logical, and capable of being rationally comprehended. And yet, I've discovered that opening myself up to new ways of perceiving art is not difficult once I've set my mind to it.

I've found that remaining in a work's presence for long periods can be very helpful in beginning to understand it - just as I've found that leaving and returning to it frequently can gradually give me some indication of its identity. As the work becomes more familiar, it begins to reveal its character and ''personality.'' It slowly becomes more whole and intact, or more chaotic and pointless. I may not know at this stage exactly what and how good it is as art, but I'm usually close to knowing if it has a clear formal and thematic identity, or if it is just a piece of junk.

Prolonged periods of looking, and frequent return visits to her work, were the methods I used to familiarize myself with the intentions and qualities of Nancy Graves's art. I was intrigued but perplexed by her sculptures of camels, and then, a bit later, by her clusters of large, upright bones. I liked them well enough, but couldn't relate them to my own feelings and ideas about art.

What I did get from them was a feeling of something very old whose time had come and gone, and whose existence was now being memorialized through a series of fossil-like sculptures. But that feeling gradually dissipated over the next few years as I saw more of her work, and began to realize that she was not limited to one set of ideas, but was actually a free and far-ranging creative soul of great curiosity and considerable imagination.

What most impressed me was her ability to shift gears completely once an idea had run its course, and then to approach a new one just as eagerly and devotedly. When she was doing camels, bones, and ceremonial-type hangings, she was the total sculptor, giving life and form to certain sculptural and conceptual ideals. But when, a little later, she started doing gouaches of undersea creatures, map-like pictures of the moon, calligraphic paintings, and even films, she was equally committed to them.

In her latest work she has once again gone off at a tangent in the form of brightly colored, free-form polychrome sculptures. These are made up of such cast objects as fish, fans, leaves, flowers, bubblewrap, vegetables, lampshades, string, and paper, which are then cut, bent, and connected by welding or soldering.

The overall effect is peculiarly organic - in a vaguely science-fiction sort of way. We feel that these standing structures could easily have come from a strange planet, for there is an internal logic to them that is recognizable and yet foreign. They are handsome things that seem both primitive and sophisticated , with a sculptural presence that would have been incomprehensible to Brancusi or Rodin, and beneath contempt to Michelangelo.

And yet they represent an attitude toward art in general, and toward sculpture in particular, that is becoming increasingly popular with many of our better younger artists who seem perfectly at home with this sort of free-form, nongeometric, and ''soft'' kind of art. From Niki de Saint Phalle and Nancy Graves to Judy Pfaff, and from them to large numbers of youngsters just starting out, art means the working out and projection of feelings and ideas in forms that violate premodernist (and even some modernist) artistic traditions as much as any have. And that's all to the good, for it promises some fascinating things for tomorrow.

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