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The artist as iconoclast

By Theodore F. Wolff / February 9, 1984



Humanity's perception of itself has shaped the history of art. From the ancient Greeks, who celebrated the ideal human body in repose or action, to this century's Alberto Giacometti, with his depictions of men and women trembling on the edge of nonexistence, art has symbolically externalized our perceptions of ourselves and of our realities.

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These perceptions may be grand (Michelangelo), spiritually idealized (El Greco), extraordinarily detailed (Van Eyck), aristocratic (Van Dyck), deeply compassionate (Rembrandt), zestful and robust (Rubens), haunted (Munch), or anxious (Kokoschka). Or they might be, as in the case of today's neo-Expressionists, desperate and alienated. But whatever, they represent the way certain artists have viewed humanity, and the way we - to the extent we accept these artists' work as significant art - also perceive it.

Even so-called primitive art deals primarily with human realities, even if such art seems exceptionally spirit- and myth-oriented, and if its images of humanity seem grossly distorted to our eyes. Primitive peoples, after all, don't share our notion that one of art's main functions is to depict the physical appearance of men and women.

Portraits, in particular, are excellent clues to what we think of ourselves and how we want others to see us. We need only compare an ancient marble portrait of a Roman senator, with every wrinkle and fold of flesh intact, to one of El Greco's elongated and ascetic portraits to see how drastically our perceptions of our fellow human beings can change from age to age.

Those changes became more frequent and dramatic as the 19th century drew to a close. Between 1890 and 1905 the face of art changed dramatically. What had been relaxed and pleasurable one moment became intense, violently expressive, or stripped down the next.

As the century advanced, so did our sense of unease and anxiety about the human condition. If Munch's ''The Cry'' expressed individual terror of the unknown, and Picasso's ''Guernica'' our collective horror of modern warfare, then some of our most recent works of art have given voice to the fear that humanity itself is on the verge of self-destruction.

This fear seems difficult to live with and almost impossible to turn into art. It seems too close and overwhelming, too liable to be translated into painterly hysteria or one-dimensional preaching.

There are some artists, however, who have pulled back from these extremes and who have, without loss of urgency, focused their attentions more intensely than ever on the basic issues of human identity and purpose.

Chief among them is Francis Bacon. No one today has probed more deeply and totally into these issues than he. And no one has produced more dramatic proof of humanity's desperate need to understand and to accept responsibility for itself.

Several other artists, including some of the younger West Germans and Italians, are confronting these issues with varying degrees of integrity and success. And dozens of other painters and sculptors are also at least marginally concerned.

Of particular interest are those artists who have never wavered in their search for symbolic representations of the human condition at its most vulnerable, ambiguous, and exploratory, and whose art, as a result, has become a vital clue to our better understanding of ourselves. Giacometti springs to mind here, as do Max Beckmann, Stanley Spencer, Rene Magritte, Ivan Albright, and Jean Dubuffet.

Henry Moore should also be listed here, although more for his formal explorations of the human figure than for his psychological or philosophical probings. When the history of 20th-century art is finally written, after all, Moore's sculptures and drawings of human subjects will almost certainly be included among the most fully realized and truly monumental images of our age.

Balthus is another painter whose lifelong interest in human character and foibles - especially among adolescents - gives his work a unique quality and flavor. And much the same could be said of Paul Delvaux, only his subjects are somewhat older, and their world is infinitely more surreal.

Among the younger American artists who have sprung to view in the past five or so years, few have achieved the fame - and none the popularity - of Jonathan Borofsky. His freely drawn - and often free-moving - pictorial extravaganzas, sculptures, wall decorations, environments, etc., have become necessary ingredients in any exhibition of contemporary art. Generally huge, often gross, occasionally delightful - but always different - Borofsky's work attracts large audiences and fairly widespread critical approval.

One of the reasons, I suspect, for his popularity, especially among art students and even younger artists, is his refusal to allow rules, technical limitations, tradition, or art history to stand in his way. He is genuinely free-spirited and open to anything that will help him get his ideas across.

Like so many artists who have recently come to prominence, Borofsky deals largely with the human figure - but not in a manner that draws approval from many older artists. There is a blatant, anonymous quality to the people he depicts that turns them into stick figures or ideograms, and that causes considerable irritation among viewers accustomed to more traditionally conceived and executed human images.

Even so, there is a delightfully iconoclastic and fun-filled quality about some of his work that speaks well for his overall vision of mankind, and that creates the same sort of effect that Calder's and Miro's early work must have created when they first came upon the scene several decades ago.