Bringing respect to 'decorative'art

''Decorative'' has long been a dirty word among art critics, and it is hardly any more respectable among art historians. Only Matisse in this century managed to overcome the stigma attached to that word, and he did it only by the force of his genius and by remaining firmly embedded in that portion of the French painterly tradition that celebrates elegance, the good life, and the depiction of beautiful women.

But even he had a difficult time of it, especially in the United States during the 1930s and early 1940s, when his richly colored and sumptuously patterned canvases seemed a bit too decorative and hedonistic for American tastes. It wasn't until his stunning paper cutouts appeared in the late 1940s that world opinion turned solidly in his favor and that the word ''decorative'' spoken in connection with his work lacked a pejorative overtone.

Other artists, however, didn't do so well. Anyone wishing to diminish the significance of Miro, Pollock, Stella, or Noland, for instance, was certain to describe their work as decorative. And ''decorative'' remains among the most devastating words an art critic can apply to work that fails to meet his standards of seriousness and importance.

It was all the more fascinating, therefore, to watch the critical community react a few years ago to the work of several highly talented younger artists who proudly described their work as decorative and who insisted that the decorative impulse in art had previously been given a raw deal.

There were remarkably few screams of outrage from the critics (but then, such screams are increasingly rare these days) and a few warmly supportive reviews and articles. It obviously was an idea whose time had come, especially since most of the works that resulted from it didn't dramatically violate the dogma of two-dimensionality still in effect during the early 1970s.

I personally found many of these works attractive, but only rarely did one offer anything more than immediate sense-gratification, or leave me with anything significant once I had left its presence.

Among the exceptions were a few brightly colored and strongly patterned pieces by Robert Kushner. These seemed more coloristically and structurally sophisticated, more dynamically and shrewdly ''orchestrated'' than flatly patterned, and so appeared to fall more into the category of art rather than that of decoration.

I kept an eye on Kushner's work and was rewarded by seeing it grow in depth and range - and by the fact that it found increasingly favorable critical and curatorial approval. Of particular interest throughout all this was his continued insistence that decoration and art need not be antithetical and that Matisse need not be the only 20th-century artist for whom decoration could also be art.

I recently spent an afternoon in Kushner's studio and then paid a visit to his then-running one-man show at the Holly Solomon Gallery here. I had gone to his studio to discuss the issue of decoration with him and to see a few vorks ''in progress,'' and I had gone to his gallery to see how well his ideas and theories had translated into his most recent work.

They had done so remarkably well, not only in his smaller works on paper and in his prints, but in his very large fabric pieces as well. In fact, I came away from his exhibition quite convinced that he is beginning to really pull it off and that, in his case at least, decorative is by no means a pejorative term.

The big problem with most purely decorative work is that it is static and does little but hang on a wall and look pretty - or beautiful, if it happens to be an exceptional piece. Such work was designed to create an aura of well-being, comfort, even luxury. Its function is to please, to enrich, and to beautify an environment. Nothing more.

This is definitely not the case with Kushner's often-huge wall hangings made of various fabrics stitched together and then worked over in strategic places with acrylic paints. Although essentially flat brilliantly colored, richly patterned, and dramatically decorative, they do not just hang on the wall and look pretty. Far from it. They represent too much dynamic energy, too much coloristic and structural tension, ever to do that. If anything, they'd be more at home among strongly Expressionist works than among most decorative ones.

The last thing Kushner's pieces are is static, and that's because he knows that even flat surfaces can suggest depth, space, movement, and high drama. That even perfectly flat shapes, textures, and colors can interact as forcefully as two football teams crashing together, or as elegantly as ballet dancers performing on a stage.

Most of all, Kushner understands color. He knows that colors can be made to be as meek as lambs or as ferocious as hungry wolves. He knows, for instance, that greens can affect pinks in a certain way when placed between two reds, but that they will act quite differently if placed above a purple and a brown. He knows this and a great deal more about color, and because he does, he can orchestrate it and the shapes, textures, and lines he uses to achieve the precise thematic and formal effects he desires.

Kushner, in short, is an artist, not a decorator. He is interested in articulating and conveying ideas and emotions, in projecting personal and cultural ideals and attitudes, and in interacting with the significant art of today and of the past. He is not interested in merely making handsome things to hang on a wall, and he is even less interested in designing pretty wall pieces whose primary function is to create feelings of comfort and well-being.

Kushner's works project the kind of visual drama and authority only found in genuine art. That he prefers a decorative format to other more traditionally painterly ones becomes increasingly beside the point as his work matures and leaves its mark. What matters, after all, is the use to which an artist puts his techniques and tools, not the use to which others put them.

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