SO many things are special about Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) that one hardly knows where to begin listing them. He was one of the finest painters our century has seen and one of its subtlest colorists. His organizational skills put him on an equal footing with modernism's outstanding formalists. He will almost certainly be remembered as the century's major still-life painter. His etchings rank among the best of his time. And he brought such dignity, character, and love to painting that he and his work are frequently cited as proof that art's simpler and deeper truths and visions have not been lost to modern man.
But there's a great deal more. His fusion of the ``real'' and the ``abstract'' was so seamless that his art can be used as a pleasant introduction to modernism. He permits us to sense the ``pull'' in either direction, and to imagine what it would be like to carry the shape of a bottle or bowl one step closer to total abstraction.
His vision was so integrated, and the means he employed to express it so simple and effective, that he is one of the few 20th-century artists capable of successfully arguing the case for formal perfection. If we also remember that for him the creation of art was largely a devotional and contemplative act, we find in him an artist who can inspire as well as enchant.
The art world would benefit, I believe, if his paintings were better known or at least more widely distributed, for I suspect they could help prevent some of the excesses to which today's art is constantly subjected. With Morandi as a respected example, some of our younger artists might feel less impelled to emphasize novelty and sensation.
Even if that didn't happen, however, his work's very presence would serve as a reminder that his approach is as capable of creating significant art as an aggressive attitude asserting itself through massive forms and generous applications of paint.
As it is, Morandi's accomplishments exist as benign correctives, as levels of creative conscience to be called into play whenever the impulse to be bombastic or overly idiosyncratic threatens to take over. And if relatively little is said or written about him these days, it is not because he's been forgotten or is being ignored. Far from it. I have yet to speak about him to any artist of substance who does not respond with a warm smile and a comment that says in effect, ``Ah! Now there's MD BO a painter!''
It is the purity and consistency of his intentions, and the dedication with which he carried them out over a largely uneventful 55-year career, that are as impressive as anything else about this man. Day after day, year after year, he assembled the objects, the bowls, bottles, pitchers, boxes, and occasional flowers or fruit that made up his pictorial ``vocabulary,'' and arranged them on his desk or tabletop. He varied them only slightly, but when he did, the fact that a rust-colored jug wa s moved next to a tan box, and that two jars and a kettle which had previously dominated the grouping were far off to one side, became as important a creative decision as any made by Braque or Moore.
No one else painted or etched anything quite like his art. And no one ever will, because only another artist with a talent precisely like his, and a creative vision as exquisitely balanced between the physical and the spiritual, could produce the same ravishing tonalities and breathtakingly subtle harmonies.
There have been times I've lain awake at night wondering what this century will leave behind in the way of great, or even of major, art. I think of Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse, and the other Big Names, and I feel quite good -- even though I realize we're still too close to know what history's decision will be. Then I think of Morandi and I have no further doubts.