Frozen music

The minute I first saw Terence La Noue's sumptuously painted and richly textured painting ''Urban Planning: Mayan Nocturne,'' I wanted to touch it. My fingers itched to run over its heavily encrusted ridges and depressions, its glistening smooth areas, and to trace the various incisions, gougings, and paint dribblings that dug into or meandered over its often more than inch-thick surface.

My attention was also caught by the luminous, molten color that appeared between, underneath, and on top of velvety blacks and deep browns, blues, and grays. These played off against numerous flashes and smudges of much lighter hues to help create an effect that was both mysterious and enchanting, both sobering and exhilarating.

This effect was heightened by the fact that the picture is large (a little over 5 by 7 feet), and that it hangs free, like an extravagantly embroidered tapestry.

La Noue's technical approach is unusual. His paintings are processed from a mold into which a layer of wax or mold release is placed. The actual surface is then built up out of layers of Rhoplex bound together by cloth. Since this is both strong and thick, it can be reshaped and reworked at leisure after it has been pulled off the mold.

This process allows for an extraordinary range of color and texture and permits La Noue to fashion works visually stunning at 30 feet and temptingly tactile at three. In neither case need one know anything about La Noue's ideas or philosophy to respond favorably to what he has done. His works' passionate color, varied surfaces, and hints of exotic imagery speak for themselves, successfully conveying the quality, if not the substance, of what he is trying to communicate.

That is complex, profoundly romantic, socially and psychologically involved, and very much in line with modernism's history, challenges, and accomplishments. La Noue is one of the genuine heirs to the modernist tradition, and one of the relatively few painters working today for whom the act of painting is a cultural event as well as an act of individual expression. His is an art of continuity and regeneration which acts as responsibly toward the past as it does toward the present and the future.

His work's most fascinating attribute is its ability to transmit complex emotional, psychological, and philosophical overtones while remaining totally ''abstract.'' What may look like nothing but a jumble of meaningless shapes, textures, colors, and lines will gradually reveal itself to be a shrewdly and sensitively orchestrated painting of considerable subtlety and depth.

That cannot happen, however, unless viewers first realize that the apparently cluttered and static object in front of them is actually a painterly universe every bit as open and capable of being ''entered'' as a landscape by Constable or Turner. The primary difference between a La Noue painting and a Turner landscape is that in the former, irregular shapes, smudges and daubs of color, dribbles, gouges, and lavalike mounds of paint take the place of trees, mountains, skies, open roads, and buildings. Otherwise, they have much in common. Viewers ''enter'' the composition at a strategic point, then move in time as well as in space throughout the picture.

It's actually quite simple - as long as the viewer realizes that the work is not so much a flat, somewhat decorative object hanging on a wall as a visual guide to new and meaningful experience. The problem, of course - especially for those not familiar with modernist theory or practice - is that the picture appears frozen and jumbled, inviting only on a coloristic and textural level.

That difficulty has long been recognized. Abstract art, in fact, has often been described as ''frozen music,'' and the term is quite appropriate. But it is more than that. It is a distillation, a codification, of complex realities into compact communicating devices.

All that is required to respond to abstract art is an understanding of this and a willingness to learn the artist's highly personalized pictorial ''code.'' It may not be easy at first, but continued practice will prove that true individuality is rare and that most artists of a particular period or place share a formal language or ''code.'' The exceptions are the challenges, for they do demand extra work and patience. La Noue is one of these exceptions, not only because he is original but also because his work is richly imbued with echoes and resonances of both the modernist works he most admires and the masterpieces of African, Oceanic, Islamic, and Oriental art.

La Noue's paintings, in short, are well worth whatever effort is required to go beyond their rich and tempting surfaces. It should not, however, be all that difficult. La Noue, after all, is a consummate artist, a past master at knowing how to draw his viewers into the depths of his canvases, and then to engage them with the ideas, emotions, mysteries, and pleasures he wants to unfold.

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