The many masks of modern art

Louise Nevelson is queen of the night and mistress of the moon - and the only major artist working today whose work looks best in the dark. Not, of course, in total darkness, but in a dimly lit and windowless room. To see her complex, densely surfaced constructions in bright light is to miss most of their magic, for they have an unearthly lunar stillness and airlessness about them that is best perceived when the light is dim and the room is full of shadows.

The more low-key the light the better, for her constructions are mysterious presences with little desire to make themselves known. They are exceedingly modest and retiring, and would much prefer to just quietly be.

Looking at them in a darkened room, we feel they have existed since the dawn of time, and will exist forever. They seem above time and beyond change or growth. They stand in a room or hang from its wall, mute, enigmatic, and infinitely patient. They wait, and can wait forever.

In this, they are sphinxlike. And indeed, her work does seem to embody the secrets of the ages. Or at least those secrets having to do with time and eternity, with watchfulness and patience. We are mistaken, however, if we think her constructions will reveal their secrets easily. Like the sphinx, they only speak in riddles.

Art such as hers communicates almost exclusively on nonintellectual levels, and can only be reached through feelings and intuition. We cannot force the issue or comprehend her work through logic. We can only respond as openly as possible, and do our best to sense what it is about. The rest is easy. Once we've made contact, we need only transmit what we've felt to our brain, and it will harvest what our sensibilities have brought us.

This is the only way we can receive anything significant from Nevelson's art. And it's not a bad method. Why, after all, should art speak exclusively about the things we can put into words, or can label? Why must it (as some insist) only communicate great ideas and ideals, or speak for a great cause? Must it always be so grand, specific, and focused? Can't it also be mute? Or speak of mysteries and enigmas in a ''language'' that is itself mysterious and enigmatic?

I think it can - and must. Not because it's necessarily the best way, but because it's a viable and valuable alternative to the logical and art-historical routes through which we too often approach art. It's time, I believe, for us to trust our more subtle and inward intuitions.

There are those who would say this is a call for a greater trust in the feminine aspects of our human identity. I agree. I believe Nevelson's deeply interior art represents a particular kind of feminine sensibility of the sort also found in the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, and Michelle Stuart.

And yet, it's impossible to define feminine sensibility strictly along these lines. If Nevelson's serene, self-contained, and hauntingly enigmatic art represents feminine sensibility, then what of the boldly assertive drawings and prints of Kathe Kollwitz? Are they any the less feminine? And what of the powerfully expansive works of Modersohn-Becker, Barbara Hepworth, Alice Neel, Joyce Treiman, and Ida Kohlmeyer? Are they to be denied their feminine identities because of their creative boldness?

Certainly not - just as I would not consider such male artists as Redon, Whistler, Klee, and Morandi any the less masculine for their subtle and sensitive ways with paint.

Most people love to categorize. Many insist that men are strong, aggressive, courageous, and dominant. And women weak, modest, timid, and passive. Men master their feelings, women give in to them. Men love the outdoors, hunting, and athletics. Women prefer the indoors, domesticity, and the arts. Men, in short, are bold and tough, while women are vulnerable and tender. But we are, of course , neither one set of assumptions or the other; we are a highly individualized mixture of both. Thus, while Nevelson's enigmatic inwardness and Kollwitz's profound compassion can be viewed as feminine characteristics, they are not exclusively so, for those qualities are also found in men.

It's only when we look for and cannot find other, more traditionally ''masculine'' characteristics in an art that we begin to zero in on what might legitimately be considered ''feminine'' art. But even then, such a categorization is a tricky undertaking.

Nevelson is a good example of a major artist whose work is dramatically and almost exclusively defined by ''feminine'' characteristics. The only ''masculine'' things about her work are its large scale and occasional assertiveness. Other than that, it's quite exclusively ''feminine.''

Now, while that one-sidedness may be the reason for much of its magic and allure, it's also, I suspect, the main reason for its unearthly stillness and airlessness. I can never enter a room containing her work without feeling I'm in the presence of several rather prim Victorian ladies waiting in their discreetly lit parlor for their gentleman friends.

It's not the ''femininity'' of her work that disturbs me, but its almost total exclusion of anything ''masculine.'' (To underscore my point, we need only imagine what would happen if the men of Thomas Hart Benton's overly macho world entered that Victorian parlor. The result would be total confusion, and an utter lack of communication.)

Great art is both feminine and masculine - the moon and the sun rolled into one. That is the source of its genius and importance. A one-sided emphasis on either weakens art and erodes its ability to reconcile and transcend differences and contradictions.

Looking around, I'd say it's again time for a vision of art that would reconcile and fuse, rather than separate and isolate, the male and female principles. And that would create art in which those principles would be kept in dynamic tension. Only then would we be able to create art that is neither doctrinaire nor exclusive, but has a chance to be truly great.

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