IN art, things aren't always what they seem. A picture of an old, gnarled tree with several broken branches but with leaves intact could represent an artist's perception of himself as a creator in a hostile world. A bleak image of snow-covered corn shocks with rabbit tracks leading away from one might be a metaphor for the harshness of human existence. Or a pastel of hauntingly beautiful flowers set against a neutral background may be a painter's way of celebrating the preciousness of life. Modernism is particularly deceptive. So much of it is predicated upon theory that it is always wise to check out an artist's intentions before passing judgment. Thus, before casually condemning Mondrian for painting nothing but right angles and using only the primary colors, we should examine his writings in order to understand what he was trying to do. If we still cannot respond to his work or if we feel that he failed to translate his theories into art, we at least will have some basis for intelligent
Abstraction is an especially tricky proposition since so little of it is truly abstract or nonrepresen- tational. With the exception of what was produced by the Constructivists and other minimalist-inclined painters and sculptors -- all of whom declared emphatically that ``what you see is all there is'' -- abstract art has always represented or hinted at something other than what its form causes us to assume it is.
We have, as a result, often mistaken the ``messenger'' for the ``message.'' Rather than looking beyond Jackson Pollock's drips and blobs, Mark Rothko's smudges, or James Turrell's illuminations for what they implied, we have tended to accept these merely formal devices as the sum and substance of these artists' work.
Several deeply committed creative figures have suffered neglect or misunderstanding because of this or have received a measure of critical approval for the wrong reasons. A prime example of such misunderstanding is Alfred Jensen (1903-81), a painter of tightly structured, heavily impastoed ``abstractions,'' many of which resemble brightly colored rugs.
The public, confronted by his very large, brilliantly hued checkerboard canvases, assumed they were only pleasant decorations, while most art professionals, influenced no doubt by these pictures' outward resemblance to what certain nonobjective painters had produced, insisted on seeing them as rather conventional abstractions.
If either public or professionals had followed the example of the negligible few who questioned Jensen's motivations, they would have discovered that his paintings actually represented a highly imaginative individual's probings into the larger implications of various ideas derived from other cultures and earlier times. What appeared merely decorative to some and purely abstract to others was, in fact, an imagery inspired by such widely divergent sources as the Mayan calendar, the Chinese ``I Ching'' or ``Book of Changes,'' the mathematical methods of the ancient Greek Pythagoreans, the color theories of Goethe, and certain scientific principles.
His interest in these matters began in 1938 with the discovery of Goethe's ``Theory of Colors.'' This remained his primary guide until 1959, when he began to explore and interpret electromagnetism and other themes based on physical phenomena and planetary and mathematical systems.
At no time was his concern purely academic. Everything he studied was carefully distilled, coded as bands, bars, numbers, and colors, and then modified to reflect new rules and possibilities as they arose. His images, as a result, are less paintings in the traditional sense than diagrams or, to be more exact, picture puzzles without solutions that exist primarily for the issues they raise and the challenges they afford.
But is this art? The public was confused, with no one denying his paintings' attractiveness but with little willingness to take them seriously. If his canvases look like designs for rugs, the argument went, then that is what they must be.
A handful of critics also had -- and still have -- serious doubts. Jensen's application of cultural and scientific principles has not much if anything to do with art, they suggest, and serves mainly to rationalize the limitations of his rather humble talent. Even as a designer he is not all that impressive. The world is full of real rugs, they point out, that are as attractive as his painted images, or more so.
The art world as a whole, however, is more favorably inclined. An increasing number of art professionals and collectors admire and collect what he produced. New York's prestigious Guggenheim Museum is currently honoring him with a major retrospective that is drawing more attention to his work than it has ever before received. And interest in his ideas has grown dramatically over the past three or four years.
And as for me? Well, I like and respect his paintings, but I'm afraid that I find them more intriguing than important.
Fortunately, I don't have to make a final judgment but can continue to study them for any indication that I have underestimated them.