The art of radical simplification. Jack Youngerman's abstract forms resonate qualities of organic life

THERE are artists for whom it really is true that ``less is more.'' One thinks of Brancusi, Arp, Mondrian, Matisse, and Rothko as prime examples of creative individuals who distilled complex ideas and rich perceptual experiences into the simplest forms and fewest colors possible. Entire movements, particularly Neo-Plasticism and Minimalism, were predicated on the principles of formal reduction, and several modern realists, especially Morandi and Giacometti, made radical simplification central to their work. No American artist working today, however, has been more committed to the notion that ``less is more'' than Jack Youngerman. And none has been more consistent in his attempts to invent dramatically simple shapes on canvas and in three dimensions that appear abstract, but that resonate with qualities normally associated with things observed in nature.

A large, representative selection of these ``inventions'' in the form of paintings, sculpture, wall reliefs, folding screens, and drawings is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum here. Outstanding in this impressive survey of Youngerman's career to date are several starkly effective, primarily black and white canvases of the late 1950s and early 1960s that reflect his careful study of Matisse's brush drawings of the previous decade and the Abstract Expressionist images of Motherwell and Still; some marvelously crisp and expansive pictures of the mid-1960s in which extended areas of white and two or three small patches of primary color predominate; a handful of large, richly colored ``relief paintings;'' and a group of recent, remarkably elegant fiberglass sculptures whose impact derives solely from the subtle interplay of a few convex and concave shapes and surfaces.

Surprisingly, for all their simplicity and flatness, the works in this exhibition come across as neither merely decorative nor austere, but as visually tantalizing, and just ambiguous enough to keep the viewer wondering if they were ``invented'' or if they were actually derived from particular forms in nature.

Youngerman is very clear about this: ``Any number of diverse visual impressions or combinations might serve as a point of departure,'' he explained to an art critic early in his career. At the same time, ``the origin of the painting is almost never directly in things seen. I've nothing against it, but nature doesn't provide me with `subjects.' I can invent a much greater variety of shapes that I can use than I could ever get from observation.''

The point, however, is that they seem drawn from life. They are too full of energy, too ``organic,'' and too revitalizing not to be significantly related to living, growing things. We may not be able to pinpoint the actual source, but we cannot help but feel that a particular image represents a plant form and another a landscape element. And therein lies their secret. They possess the rare ability to evoke a sense of the dynamics, the nature, of life and growth without the need also to depict the physical manifestations of these qualities as such things as flowers, trees, or leaves. An ability, in short, to give symbolic form to what is characteristic of all natural forms rather than what is descriptive of only one.

We all know how lifeless precise renderings of people, places, and things often seem -- and how vital and exhilarating certain abstract or expressionistic paintings can be. In Youngerman, we have an artist who has devoted his creative life to fashioning a meaningful new balance between pure representation and pure abstraction that speaks specifically to a late-20th-century sensibility -- and who has succeeded to a rather remarkable degree.

I say rather remarkable because I'm not totally convinced that the balance he has so far achieved entitles him to major status as a 20th-century master. He's good, but so far, at least, he hasn't produced anything that haunts the imagination or contributes significantly to either the quality or the formal language of 20th-century art. There is a slackness, a willingness to accept easy solutions in some of his works, especially in his folding screens and in such ``relief paintings'' as ``Swirl II'' and ``Dive.'' And his recent sculptures, impressive as they are, tend to be a mite prettier and more static than one would expect from an artist forging into deeper or more significant dimensions of creativity. On the other hand, such pieces as ``Blue-White-Red'' of 1965, ``June 1965,'' and ``Apollyon,'' executed in 1984, are true knockouts. In addition, who knows what may be on the verge of taking form in his studio?

At the Guggenheim Museum through April 17.

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