Everyday sculpture

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SOME artists arrive at their creative destinations by slow, plodding work. Others by a series of tiny intuitive leaps. Still others by hurling themselves past all rules and restrictions. None of these methods, of course, can guarantee success, and none is necessarily the best. Each, however, has served numerous artists well, and has resulted in the production of some excellent work.

Of the three, the last is the most difficult and problematical. For every artist who has made it work -- and they range from Michelangelo and El Greco to Van Gogh, Picasso, and Pollock -- hundreds have failed, or have produced only minimally interesting art.

The temptation to try it, however, is great, especially among younger painters and sculptors impatient to achieve fame and glory and among older artists for whom everything else has failed. For them, the act of figuratively shutting their eyes and following an inner imperative is as much an act of desperation as of faith. That some succeed at all is amazing, and that others succeed time and time again over a long career is very close to miraculous.

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Our century has seen a number of examples from Matisse, Mir'o, Giacometti, Gorky, and Guston to a handful of youngsters working today. Only a few are of the highest caliber, and some may be forgotten by the time this century is over, but all have one thing in common: ability to create art by trusting in their instincts.

This trust is not easy to acquire, especially since artists are so often inhibited by rules designed more to package and control creativity than to stimulate or nourish it. No sooner does a genuinely free-spirited painter burst such restrictions to produce work that truly ``sings'' than a cluster of critics and art historians appear to explain and neatly categorize the little miracle that has just occurred. What began as a leap of joy for the artist very quickly becomes a kind of rule-book ``prison'' from which younger artists must, in turn, leap free.

Perhaps that is the way it will always be. Perhaps creativity cannot find its true voice until it has first battled its way clear of the past and of its exponents in the present. I really don't know. That is the way it often works. Many of the ``freest'' artists working today were once profoundly ``locked in'' to an older artist's style and formal ideals.

Ida Kohlmeyer, for instance, is one of the most independent-minded artists working today, and yet she battled for several years earlier in her career to free herself of the influence of not one but two major painters.

It began with a period of study with Hans Hofmann in 1956 and time spent with Mark Rothko in 1957. Rothko, in particular, seemed dead on-target as far as contemporary art was concerned, with the result that her paintings generally ended up looking like pale variants of those Rothko had already produced.

By 1963, she was desperate. So she did the only thing she thought would work and began painting in a style in total opposition to Rothko's.

It was slow, and hard, and her first pictures weren't altogether successful. She stuck to it, however, and within two or three years something unique to herself began to appear on her canvases. By 1970, this quality was pushing all other elements aside, and by 1974 it began to burst free. From then on, her art moved forward by a series of painterly leaps and explosions that brought her images closer and closer to truly original art and finally helped establish her as one of the most exuberantly alive and joyous painters of the '80s.

On the other hand, she was not making quite the same headway with her sculpture, begun in 1968. Around 1982, it began to move forward at roughly the same rate as her painting, but considering that she started painting earlier, her brilliantly colored and delightfully informal three-dimensional pieces were still lagging somewhat behind.

A commission to design and build a huge outdoor sculpture piece for a building complex in New Orleans probably helped break the ice. With the successful completion of the ``Krewe of Poydras'' in 1983, her sense of life and color began asserting itself through her styrofoam and plexiglass figures with all the passion that had precipitated her most free-spirited canvases. A few small pieces representing this latest leap forward were shown in her 1984 New York exhibition, but the final proof that her sculpture had caught up with her painting was put on view only a few weeks ago in New Orleans.

This proof consisted of clusters of small, brightly colored, everyday objects attached to, growing from, hanging over, stacked upon, or casually encircling a number of ordinary things like hatracks and chairs. Described in this fashion, no one would expect such works to be art. And yet, that is just what they are, thanks to a very special artist's willingness to try things never before attempted, and to do so with the kind of lighthearted abandon only a few can pull off. Theodore F. Wolff

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