Challenging the victory of modernist art

IT's so easy for us, surrounded as we are by widespread ``evidence'' of modernism's victory over non-modernist art, to forget that there are excellent ``conservative'' painters and sculptors who vehemently deny, not only that what they represent has been defeated, but that their position has even been significantly challenged by modernist theory or achievement. Many of these artists maintain that modernism was either a joke perpetrated by well-intentioned but untalented and overly ambitious individuals, or a largely theoretical approach to art designed to reflect and embody urban realities and formalist ideals.

Others perceive it as a game for insiders that can be played only by those who know and accept its special rules.

And others still see it as an arena for youthful experimentation, a place to flex one's artistic muscles, try out the latest styles and fashions, and sow a few wild oats before settling down to the serious business of creating real art.

There also are those, of course, who haven't paid any attention whatever to modernist ideas - and who've done very well without them. Included among these free-spirited souls are a significant number of America's best Western, portrait, and landscape painters. They can be found in every part of the country, in the major art centers, and in smaller communities. A few have even made names for themselves far off the beaten track, in isolated mountain regions and in heavily wooded retreats.

Wisconsin's Door County may not be a retreat, but it is a heavily wooded resort area that extends like a dark green thumb into Lake Michigan. Near its tip sits Sturgeon Bay, a town that takes pride in many things, especially the watercolors and temperas of its 85-year-old resident artist, Gerhard Miller.

Now, it must be made clear that Mr. Miller is neither a primitive nor a ``naive'' painter, but a highly skilled and sophisticated artist who knows very well what he's doing and what is going on in the art capitals of the world.

He has traveled extensively, exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States, seen his paintings reproduced and widely distributed as commercial prints, and has made a modest but tidy income from sales of his work. And, as if that weren't enough, there's even a small art center in Sturgeon Bay given over to the display of what he's produced.

Best of all, his community's affection and respect for his paintings developed naturally, and as a result of his work's celebration, not only of the natural beauties in and around Door County, but of some of the scenic wonders he and his wife have encountered during their various trips abroad. No one had to inform his neighbors that owning one of his watercolors would enhance their social status.

And no one had to explain to them why what he did was good. They could tell right away, without any trouble, not only because it looked ``right'' and ``true,'' but also because it had caught something special and difficult to define of what was beautiful about the sight of a broken-down buggy near a ramshackle barn, or a dense mass of autumn foliage set against a glimpse of distant Lake Michigan.

Questions about modernist ideals and theory make little or no sense in this context. Art was a sensitively rendered depiction of what one knew and loved, not what a total stranger in a faraway city or country insisted that it had to be.

Colored circles and squares and agitated squiggles and doodles might be all right for Milwaukee and New York, but they were out of place amid the trees, streams, and rocky shorelines of Door County.

Miller's joy has always been in translating what he sees and likes into as lyrical and realistic a painting as possible. And his neighbors - as well as the summer visitors who come from miles away to admire what he does - understand and respect him for it.

A few might think his work a bit too picturesque and tradition-bound. But the majority of those who recognize the various influences - conceptual as well as technical and stylistic - also recognize the personal manner in which he uses these influences for his own creative and expressive ends.

He is, for instance, especially good at depicting forest life at or near ground level, at capturing the wild jumble of grasses, flowers, seedlings, broken branches, uprooted stumps, and moss encountered underfoot or clustered around huge boulders.

And there is no one, with the possible exception of Andrew Wyeth, who can paint the deeply furrowed trunks and exposed root areas of old, gnarled trees better than he.

But mostly, he's a master of atmospheric effect, of the process whereby light in all its diverse forms is transformed into bold or delicate daubs or washes of colored paint. This, as any artist knows, is one of the rarest and most important gifts a landscape painter can possess. With it, almost everything is possible. Without it, all the technique and discipline in the world won't prevent a work from remaining flat and lifeless.

Even this means little or nothing to the dedicated modernist, for whom straightforward landscape painting, no matter how good or true, is only one step removed from calendar art. Perhaps that's only fair, considering how low an opinion many landscape painters have of modernist art.

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