Elegant simplicity

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DISCOVERING or deciding who one is as an artist can take years. Being able to draw, paint, or sculpt isn't enough. One must also have focus and determination - to say nothing of a clear idea of one's strengths and weaknesses and of what art is all about. Without these qualities, one will almost certainly remain a talent without direction, experimenting with one style or subject after another, hoping desperately to find the one that will lead to fame and fortune. One problem is having something interesting or significant to ``say.'' Another, knowing how to translate that into a painting, wood engraving, bronze - or possibly even a video performance. And still another, sensing what is essential or contributory to the production of art and what is irrelevant or damaging. Nothing is more important than that. Many a young painter or sculptor has failed by attempting to force primarily literary ideas into paintings or prints, or by inundating his or her work with too much detail or evidence of skill.

But even with these matters under control, and with a particular style or approach chosen and tentatively shaped, the beginning artist still has a major obstacle to overcome: the pressures brought about by ambition and the competitive spirit to, on the one hand, conform blindly, and on the other, be as outrageous as possible in order to attract attention.

The temptation to do things the easy way, to take advantage of whatever shortcut or gimmick presents itself, is particularly great in an art world as open and confusing as today's. We need only imagine the wildest type of painting or the most extravagant form of sculpture to discover that someone has already exhibited it - or is scheduled to do so in a month or two.

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All this has significantly altered our viewing habits and/or expectations. We visit galleries and museums of contemporary art more to be amazed, titillated, and entertained than to be moved or enriched. If we want the latter, we know we need only trundle over to any museum displaying Old Masters and have our fill of its Rembrandts, Vermeers, and C'ezannes.

But why this separation? This division between art that moves and enriches and art that provides and entertains? Is modernism to blame? Or is it more the result of our increasing pressure on artists of all ages to perform as brilliantly and cleverly as possible - even before they have anything individual or significant to communicate?

Whatever the reason, some of the blame must be laid at the feet of our inordinate passion for the new. Creative maturity interests us less than the first dramatic stirrings of talent, especially if it promises novel and exciting alternatives to what we already have. Once talent begins to realize itself and becomes a known commodity, however, we tend to lose interest in it, and to shift our attention to even newer and more startlingly unprecedented work.

No wonder so many of our younger artists are confused or cynical, unwilling to commit themselves to the slow and often difficult process leading to genuine creative growth. Why hassle with integrity and ideals, after all, when it is easier and so much more rewarding to whip up something ``new'' every two or three years?

Ren'ee Ritter is one artist who continues year after year to nurture and deepen her talent in her own way and at her own pace. She and her loosely executed abstractions came to my attention six years ago during a huge, nationwide exhibition held in Madison Square Garden.

Her paintings were among the few on display (and there were literally thousands hanging in one booth after another), that had something worthwhile to ``say'' - and that said it intelligibly. True, her work was still rough and unformed, but the quality was there.

I saw several of her shows over the next few years and was pleasantly surprised every time. Using a modified Abstract Expressionist approach - one that drew as heavily on Eastern calligraphic and landscape devices as on the imagery of Motherwell and Kline - she was slowly but surely forging a personal and highly effective art for herself. Every exhibition represented an advance, both in execution and conception, and indicated that it wouldn't be long before she would be an artist of substance and accomplishment.

Her recent show at New York's Viridian Gallery proved that that time has come. A good half of the collage paintings on view were truly masterful and possessed the authority, elegance, and simplicity that comes only from years of concentrated, committed effort. And the other pieces were only minimally short of that level.

I was particularly impressed by the power and subtlety of her images, and by her ability to fuse starkly calligraphic and complex collage elements into works of remarkable depth and range. Only a special and finely honed sensibility could juxtapose sweeping or rigidly controlled brush strokes, merchandising and address labels, newspaper fragments, photographs, stamps, and other odds and ends in so effectively poetic a manner.

There's no doubt she's an artist and that she has ``arrived.'' And she has because she's used her talents to embody and communicate what intuition and experience have revealed to her of the beauty and meaning of life. Others may prance about and preen in order to attract attention, but Ren'ee Ritter will continue as before: modestly and without deviating from what moves and concerns her most deeply.

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