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American art is doing well - although no big new ideas are in sight

By Theodore F. Wolff / May 31, 1983



New York

It's quite obvious to me - regardless of what the art press and the large museum shows of ''emerging'' talent may indicate - that American art is doing quite well at this moment. And that it is broader, deeper, and much more promising than some of my colleagues seem to think.

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Yet no single event, exhibition, or artist dominated the 1982-83 New York art season. And no important new ideas emerged - or threatened to emerge - to change the ongoing order of things.

It was, by and large, a year of continuity and consolidation. Artists who were ''in'' in September are still holding forth today, and the same is true of the movements prominent at the beginning of the season.

The West Germans and Italians are more firmly entrenched than ever; hardly a month passes without at least one or two well-publicized exhibitions of their work. The American neo-expressionists (for want of a better term - although ''figurative-expressionists'' seems to be gaining ground), are on top of the world, with Schnabel, Salle, Fischl, and the rest managing to consolidate their positions more every day. And such provocative independents as Susan Rothenberg, Judy Pfaff, Pat Stier, Nancy Graves, Judy Rifka, Cindy Sherman, Keith Sonnier, and William Wegman (to mention only those who first spring to mind) are also doing extremely well.

Video and film go galloping on toward new horizons, and large-scale interior installations are becoming more popular all the time. Interestingly, however, strictly ''realistic'' painting and sculpture is continuing to attract critical and popular support, and straightforward drawings from life are staging a gradual but significant comeback. It should also not be forgotten that there are still many supporters of minimal and conceptual art. Some of the latter, as a matter of fact, are quite convinced that the art world will soon come to its senses and return the search for pure form to its rightful place.

It has been easier than ever this past year to find and to buy Western ''cowboy'' art in New York, and I've never before seen so many art posters for sale. Even printmaking is expanding, toward both greater technical innovation and more traditional modes of expression. I've seen more experimental graphic art of quality and more flat-out ''conventional'' etchings, engravings, lithographs, and so forth this year than at any time since the 1948-55 period. In fact, this has been the first season I can remember in which a contemporary print exhibition (Frank Stella's at the Whitney Museum) ended up as one of the season's top 10 shows.

The art world, in short, was as open to anything and everything this past season as I've ever seen it - and was as unwilling to exercise serious critical judgment as it's ever been. This has cut both ways: The art world has never been more open to the new - and never more unclear about its goals.

What is clear, however, is that some of the season's best shows were by artists in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, many of whom are doing better and more exciting work now than at any other time in their careers. It was a joy, for instance, to see Dubuffet beating younger and more bushy-tailed neo-expressionists at their own game - and still having enough art left over to create a stunning series of works on paper. And to see Miro celebrating his 90th birthday at the Guggenheim and Henry Moore his 85th at the Metropolitan.

This season also saw Esteban Vicente's 80th birthday party in the form of his best show ever, the Louise Bourgeois triumph at the Museum of Modern Art, Louise Nevelson's handsome show of sculpture, and Isamu Noguchi's magnificent exhibition of recent work.