Unusual masterpieces

Like so many other people, Joseph Goldyne became an artist by drawing a lot when he was a child and studying great works of art when he was older. But he has an unusual way of thinking about masterpieces, which led him to an unusual way of making art.

Most of us would like masterpieces to be perfect, and we see them through a haze of reverence. To Joseph Goldyne, who is an artist himself, it seems well nigh impossible for any artist to maintain high quality over large areas of canvas. A single page of illuminated manuscript may be a jewel, but a sizable painting is likely to have weaknesses as well as strengths.

That way of thinking led him to imagine a history of art consisting of splendid bits and pieces, rather than flawless masterpieces arranged in chronological order. When he began his own career during the early 1970s, he found it natural to express his admiration for earlier art by combining one nice fragment with another. He could give full rein to his verbal and visual wit, acknowledge earlier art, and at the same time create beautiful things of his own. ''Ruscha and the Number One Impressionist'' exemplifies the way in which a single work of art can be derived from the most various sources. The idea began to take form while Goldyne was sitting in an airline seat after a stay at a Sheraton hotel. Gazing idly at a sheet of hotel stationery in his lap, he noticed that the word ''Sheraton'' could be broken into several shorter words: ''she,'' ''her,'' ''era,'' ''rat,'' ''ton,'' and some two-letter words as well.

Also in his lap was a catalog of Impressionist paintings. Looking at the word ''Monet'' as he had looked at ''Sheraton,'' he saw the word ''one,'' and toyed with the idea that Monet was the ''number one'' Impressionist. From there it was a question of bringing together his real admiration of Monet with this bit of wordplay.

Southern California painter Ed Ruscha is noted for incorporating words into his art; in fact, some of his most typical works consist entirely of lettering. Perhaps more to the point, Ruscha is famous for a series of landscapes in which the word ''Hollywood'' is spelled out across the Hollywood hills.

It hardly makes any difference that those letters actually exist in that place; Ruscha's landscapes with the word ''Hollywood'' have long since been assimilated into the canon of American art. For people interested in art, the bridges of London have lost their everyday character in the same way, and may now be thought of as occasions for great works by such painters as Claude Monet.

Goldyne's print is both a visual jest and an hommage to Monet. By his combination of images, Goldyne has reclaimed Waterloo Bridge for art - in this case, his own art. He has positioned Monet's name so as to endorse the earlier artist's preeminence. At the same time, he has parodied the art historians' tendency to make extravagant statements about which artist was first, best, or most important. In doing so, he has annexed the ambiguous pleasures and exaggerations of art history to his own sense of beauty and play.

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