Being cozy without being cute

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There aren't many artists who'd dare to try to fashion a work of art out of seven sleeping cats, an old-fashioned wood stove, some logs, and a few other items scattered about a cozy, snug interior. And I know no one today who'd risk portraying one of the cats upside down in a box with a contented smile on its face.

The probability of failing to produce a work of art and of ending up with merely a cute illustration would be too great. And besides, the very idea of depicting something so gently relaxing and cozy would strike most artists as trivial and beneath the dignity of art.

That's not the way Wanda Gag (1893-1946) felt about this subject, however, and I for one am glad. Had she felt that way she would not have made her lithograph ''Siesta,'' which, while not a great work of art, is nevertheless one of the most charming minor prints of its period.

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Things were very different in the American art world of the 1930s and early 1940s. Art wasn't big business then as it is now, and neither did it take itself as seriously. There was room at the top - or very near it - for paintings, sculptures, and prints that celebrated a more casual, gentle, and everyday existence. Although a few American artists such as Gorky, Davis, Demuth, and Weber stressed a modified modernism in their work and a few others worked strictly within an abstract style, the vast majority of artists were primarily concerned about portraying American life as simply and directly as possible.

Wanda Gag was no exception. She was born in Minnesota and began her professional life as a commercial artist. Her career as a printmaker was launched by her first important exhibition in New York in 1926 - just as ''Millions of Cats,'' her first book published in 1928, started her on a successful career as writer and illustrator of children's books.

She sustained this dual professional identity for the rest of her life. Her books sold well (''Millions of Cats'' can still be found in some bookstores), and her reputation as a graphic artist grew steadily until, by the mid-1930s, she was considered one of America's finest printmakers.

Her prints were characterized by crisp design, dramatic tonal contrasts, and a brooding, somewhat mysterious mood. Some could have illustrated fairy tales, others the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Strange things happen in her lithographs: Spinning wheels spin madly even though no one is present, a stone crusher turns into a fierce dragon, and ordinary household objects seem possessed by Mysterious Presences.

And yet, there is something very warm and comforting about most of these provocatively imaginative images. They intrigue, but they don't threaten, possibly because we sense that the Mysterious Presences that animate the objects in her world are benign if not actually friendly.

What or who they are we'll never know, but that's not surprising since art never really gives its secrets away. It may give us hints and clues, charm us on one level in order to engage us more deeply on another, and even seem to spell things out in extraordinary detail. And yet, if we're honest about it, we'll have to admit that what a particular work of art is really all about always manages somehow to elude us.

''Siesta'' is one of Wanda Gag's least mysterious prints. Nothing out of the way is taking place - unless we think it unusual that seven cats could be so comfortably ensconced in one household. The latter are sound asleep and scattered about the room. They are the center of attention and obviously the main reason for this print's having been made in the first place.

The artist, however, was also concerned about formal matters. She writes: ''I felt the room as a space in which cylinders (stove, wood), cubes (box, bench), flat surfaces (floors, walls), and the more pliable forms of the cats all had their place. Since I wanted a mood of calm and comfort, I used a simple composition of familiar objects grouped around a nucleus of light and arranged so that the eye could travel easily from one to the other.''

The eye does indeed travel from animal to animal. Everything in this picture, in fact, helps to establish a continuing linear movement. This is true of the curves of the guitar, the placement of the slippers, the curl of the mother cat's tail and the line of her outstretched front left leg. Even the rectangle of the box with its smugly upside-down cat plays an important compositional role , as indeed do the folds of the cloth covering the table, the match holder on the wall, and the handle of the tiny frying pan on the stove.

The function of all this formal structuring, however, is merely to help emphasize the print's atmosphere of coziness and well-being. For all we know, a terrible storm may be raging outside, but even if that is true, in this room at least, everything is safe and toasty warm.

Now all this may strike some as too sentimental in mood and too trivial in theme to serve as the raw material of art. And in the deepest, most critical sense, I would have to agree. This print does come perilously close to being cute. It is saved from being so, however, by its character, formal integrity, and simple, homey charm. Its art may be minor, and its overall significance skin-deep, but it deserves respect nevertheless. There is more to art, after all , than greatness or importance. It can also represent our gentler and more informal selves, our need for warmth and comfort, and our deeply personal but highly significant love of family, home, personal belongings, and pets.

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