Portrait of the artist as a young master

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TALENT or genius in art takes several forms. It can manifest itself as an unusual knack for transforming the appearances of nature into exceptionally harmonious or provocative images; as a heightened sensibility for color, line, design, or characterization; as a flair for imaginative subjects or compositions; as a passion for novel formal ideas or expressive devices; as an insatiable drive to give voice to a vision, feeling, or ideal; or as a combination of several or all of the above. Needless to say, very few artists possess even half of these in full strength. And the combined creative forces that result in a Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Vermeer are exceedingly rare. Most painters, even some of the most important, must learn to compensate for an insufficiency of one quality or another, or must work to bring a weaker skill up to the level of the strongest. On a scale of 1 to 10, C'ezanne was unquestionably one of the greatest ``10s'' of all times in matters of formal vision and organ izational skills, yet as a draftsman he barely rates a ``3.'' Picasso, on the other hand, may have been one of history's greatest draftsmen, but as a colorist he deserves no more than a ``4.''

Most younger artists of talent have one or two special skills and sensibilities, a certain amount of imagination, and enough determination and ambition to get them through at least several years of difficult working conditions and almost certain art-world indifference. Some may draw beautifully, others might have an outstanding color sense, solid compositional gifts, or a powerful and well-directed passion for paint. In the process of becoming more accomplished, a number will focus on their strengths an d avoid all areas of weakness, others will do their best to broaden their expressive range, and a few will try to transcend matters of talent and skill and to address themselves exclusively to the dominant formal and thematic ideas of the day.

The last-mentioned are the most likely to succeed -- at least until the ideas and styles they represent are no longer in vogue. After that, they will either have to switch allegiances or compete on the basis of ability and quality alone. The ones who will have the most difficulty, but whose success -- should they achieve it -- will be the most solid, are the ones who concentrate primarily on creative fulfillment and personal expression, and whose awareness of their period's issues and realities runs dee p but does not depend upon fashionable forms or methods for realization.

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The situation is complicated by the fact that training for a life in art is extremely difficult today. Since there are no traditions to speak of, and no consistently applied formal or technical disciplines, every young artist must muddle through the preliminaries as well as he or she can. One thing, however, is certain: Success must come immediately -- certainly before the age of 30 -- or there is the danger of being viewed as a failure. There is no time for the basics, for the acquisition of insights i nto the real nature and purpose of art. All that matters is finding the most efficient shortcut to instant fame and fortune.

Fortunately, a few highly gifted youngsters view their futures differently, and devote a great deal of time and effort to the study of their craft. Among the most exceptional of these is Jerry Weiss, a painter just one year out of art school, whose wide-ranging and well-balanced talents and sensibilities should assure him of a distinguished artistic career.

There is nothing sensational about his abilities, nor has he evolved a startlingly personal style or imagery. He only does what he does extraordinarily well -- better, in fact, than anyone of similar age and experience I have encountered recently -- and with the kind of quiet mastery that requires neither histrionics nor a strained ``originality'' to make its point.

Ironically, this proficiency has created certain professional problems for him. We have become so accustomed to judging art by style and novelty in this century that the notion that an artist's worth might be determined by the fact that he or she paints better than anyone else strikes us as odd and more than a little undemocratic.

There are no universal standards, we argue, for such a judgment, nor is it desirable that art be so hierarchical. An artist's primary responsibility, we insist, is to find what is unique and different about his or her talents, and to make an issue out of that uniqueness.

Fine and good. Nothing pleases me more than to see that happen. At the same time, there are standards by which we can evaluate talent and accomplishment. Like it or not, Matisse did draw better than Benton, and Morandi did paint better than Porter -- and young Jerry Weiss, despite the ``conservative'' nature of his work to date, is a better and more finely tuned painter than the majority of his contemporaries.

Being very young, he has time to mature and to evolve a personal and significant pictorial statement. What he won't have to do -- unless the pressures of the marketplace defeat him -- is to spend the rest of his life desperately seeking new gimmicks to keep up with the art world's mad passion for the ever more novel and idiosyncratic.

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