Still an incredible source

MODERNISM has been, and continues to be, an incredible source of inspiration for artists. During its roughly 100 years, it has tried to reconstruct the universe with C'ezanne, exulted and agonized with Van Gogh, smashed idols with Picasso, found beauty in pure line and color with Matisse, aspired to perfection with Mondrian, giggled with Klee, skipped about gaily in the breeze with Calder, hurled itself into the labyrinth with Pollock, and returned to a primal state with Dubuffet. It has also tried to resolve psychological dilemmas with Munch, prayed with Rouault, thundered at social and political evils with Beckmann, given deeply from the heart with Kollwitz, and played the fool with Warhol. It has inspired hope, sought out and celebrated the laws of life, affirmed continuity, given meaning to tragedy, and illuminated the nature of our time.

And, last but not least, it has caused us to smile and to take delight in the little things we otherwise might not have noticed or been inclined to ignore.

Modernism, in short, has been, and is, one of mankind's most complex and effective forms of self-knowledge and self-expression, and not at all the villain so many feared it was or would become.

There may be some legitimate questions about its tendency to drop whatever it has started in order to dash off after something newer and brighter, and the way it occasionally permits theory to replace intuition in the creation of art. It can also be said that in several ways modernism has never quite grown up, that it has not progressed significantly beyond a precocious adolescence -- although it has had a few flashes of maturity here and there.

All that, however, cannot outweigh its extraordinary contributions. It has championed individual expression, legitimized experimentation and improvisation, and expanded the range of materials acceptable for the making of art. Who in the 19th century, for instance, would ever have thought that pieces of tin hanging from wires, holes dug in the ground, drips and blobs of paint hurled onto canvas, and bits of torn newspaper stuck together on boards would ever be given the status of serious art?

Even if it didn't always work (and much of what resulted from this experimentation with new materials fell short of the mark), it still must be counted as a valuable effort. It proved once and for all, for instance, that in the hands of such masters as Picasso and Calder, torn sections of newspaper and little snippets of tin could be as useful to an artist as oil paint and marble, and that nothing is too humble or outrageous for genius to transform into art.

Modernism has also proved to be a rich storehouse of ideas, forms, and images from which younger artists could draw inspiration. Many, in fact, have dipped into its treasures for what they needed to get started, taking a little from Matisse here, something of Chagall there, and then possibly rounding it all off with techniques learned from Mir'o or Pollock.

Most impressive have been the relatively few figures who could accurately be described as modernism's genuine heirs, the painters and sculptors whose creative visions were defined by certain modernist ``old masters,'' and whose work has attempted to keep these older artists' values and ideals alive and relevant in increasingly updated forms.

Thus, Bonnard worked successfully with many of Impressionism's central tenets until well into the 1940s without losing any of his own integrity or originality in the process. And Matisse, Picasso, and Braque frequently declared themselves to be C'ezanne's ``students'' and the carriers of his tradition.

Influences are not always apparent. After periods of near-slavish imitation of C'ezanne and Picasso, Gorky so thoroughly assimilated what he had learned from them that his later style seems without precedent. And the early impact of Mir'o upon Pollock, Calder upon Rickey, and Matisse upon Diebenkorn is not visible in the younger artists' mature production.

For other painters, however, the evidence of whom they admire remains very much in plain sight. In some cases it takes the form of homage to a particular master. In others, it exists as a point of reference, adding depth and scholarship to a highly individual mode of expression.

A good example can be found in the very small and exquisite collages and other paper pieces of Cynthia Villet. These subtle, intimate, and fragile-looking miniatures stand completely apart from most of what is produced in today's explosive and aggressive art world, and yet they represent some of modernism's finest formal ideas in ways that not only dignify those ideas but honor the creators who originated them as well.

Klee, Nicholson, Morandi, Tobey, Bissier -- as well as the Picasso and Braque who invented Cubism -- all share in the beauty and quiet enchantment of her images. And yet, every one of these tiny abstractions and paper constructions is totally original and as personal an artistic statement as those made by any of the heroes whose ``heir'' she is.

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