The many masks of modern art

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It is with a strange sense of deja vu that I read in today's art magazines that abstraction is now old-fashioned, that Modernism is dead, and that painting is losing its effectiveness and will soon be replaced by photography.

I've heard all that so many times before, most particularly in the late 1930s , early '40s, and late '60s. Time, however, has proven otherwise. Abstraction and Modernism have ruled the roost from 1950 until the present, and painting has very much held its own against photography - and against film and video art, for that matter. In fact, if anything is really old-fashioned today, it's the notion that the ''new'' will automatically replace the ''old'' in art, and that contemporary art must continue to be viewed within an ''either/or'' context.

We simply must stop thinking that way, and start adjusting to the fact that art, for quite a while to come, will be more diverse, expansive, and open than ever. And that the ''old'' can coexist legitimately with the dramatically ''new.''

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To begin with, we must understand that our post-World War II theories about what art is and what it can do are no longer fully relevant to the kind of work emerging in the 1980s. And that our current, popular perceptions of art as a quick means to fame, glory, big money, and successful investment are not only destructive but art-denying.

We must reexamine the way we think and write about art. It is time for the profession to start tearing down the verbal monuments and the obfuscating verbal veils we have created to glorify our art and to rationalize it. It is time to start writing about art as simply as we speak of it, to stop worrying about the orthodoxy of our critical opinions. The belief, for instance, that only one style is logical for any historical period is utter nonsense in a time as fragmented and violently at odds with itself as ours. And yet, quite a few influential art professionals are still trying to determine which of our dozens of viable contemporary styles is the most ''logical'' for us, and thus the most deserving to receive the official seal of approval.

We must realize that we at present are merely groping toward some form of cultural unanimity, and that only when and if we find it will a universal style be possible. We must understand that to mandate such a style here and now is to short-circuit this searching process, and to turn art back to the days of dogma or state and religious control. But most of all, we must perceive that we cannot legislate or dictate art, for it represents life itself; that it cannot be controlled and ''packaged'' in one form or another for various periods of time, depending on the indifference of the public or the power of those in control. It will inevitably spring free, and if it didn't it would cease to be.

A good example of art ''springing free'' has taken place during the past few years in West Germany, Italy, and the United States. The face of the art world has changed dramatically, thanks largely to the emergence of a group of West Germans led by Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, A. R. Penck, and Rainer Fetting, and three young Italians, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Francesco Clemente.

With them on the scene, and with the appearance of such Americans as Julian Schnabel and David Salle, late 20th-century painting switched dramatically from a primary concern for form and structure to a passion for provocative imagery. Instead of trying to distill and to compress reality into the simplest and ''purest'' of forms (cramming everything into an already overstuffed suitcase), it now permits that reality to leap free (letting the contents of the suitcase explode outward).

What resulted may have been excessive, but it was also a corrective, for it got art out of the formalist straitjacket it was beginning to find itself in. Even so, I wish we could find a better solution than swinging from one extreme to the other every time things become stale or restricting. We may gain a new freedom and a new expressiveness by doing so, but it's usually at the expense of what we learned during the previous period.

Fortunately, as I've pointed out, we no longer feel so totally that the appearance of something new automatically means the death of the old. Some of our very best older artists, and many of our better younger ones, are continuing their pursuit of pure form or a moderate kind of representational art as though they had never heard of Baselitz or Schnabel. And I think that's all to the good. We may at present be throwing the spotlight on the newer darlings of the art world, but we are much less inclined than we were in the 1950-75 period categorically to declare alternative styles irrelevant or heretical.

Since explosions are violent, it makes sense that much of the new art is violent and aggressive (although some would describe it as exuberant), and that it generally lacks subtlety and grace. It is also logical that its approach to color is wide open and impulsive, and that many of its canvases are huge and broadly painted. But most of all, it makes sense that these canvases appear to have been spontaneously conceived and executed, and to have derived more from impulse than from careful planning.

As always, there are a few exceptions. The paintings of Sandro Chia, while as impulsive in many ways as those by his colleagues, also contain classical elements and themes, and tend to be executed more in linear than strictly painterly terms. The result is an art that looks neoclassical and mildly monumental, and that depends on drawing rather than on great gobs of paint for its effects.

This approach is not always successful, however. His forms occasionally look flabby or puffy, his modeled surfaces chalky, and his compositions mannered to the point of absurdity. And yet there is a wonderfully witty and grandiloquent quality in his work at times that gives it tremendous charm and presence.

''Poetic Declaration'' is a good case in point. It's a very large painting, and a somewhat contrived one. (There is a touch of artificiality about almost everything Chia does.) But it is also remarkably monumental and effective even from a considerable distance. And, most important, despite the subject's rather histrionic pose, it doesn't come across as false or ''corny.''

This painting is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it hangs among several other major examples of today's new paintings. What I find most interesting is that ten years ago a good 60 to 70 percent of these works would not have been taken seriously as art - and that Sandro Chia's painting, in particular, would have been dismissed as hopelessly regressive.

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