NEW YORK — IT takes very little courage to predict that when the tidal wave of modernism that has swept over our century finally recedes, the paintings of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) will appear even more beautiful than they do today. For a small but growing number of art lovers, Morandi already is high on the list of the 20th century's finest artists. At most there are a dozen on this list, with Picasso leading the pack and Matisse just behind.
But who, a decade or two ago, would have suspected that Morandi would soon be joining this select group? Not many, and yet, that shouldn't surprise us, considering the totally unassuming nature of his art.
In fact, I suspect that quite a number of those who saw the recent Morandi exhibition at the Philippe Daverio Gallery here could not understand what all the fuss was about. Visitors found only a few smallish, muted canvasses with a handful of sketchily executed still-life elements - mostly bottles, boxes, and vases - clustered at the center of each composition.
Yet everything in these works, from the exact relationship of shapes to the most subtle interaction of hues, was precisely calculated and absolutely essential to the realization of the artist's creative intentions. No other art of this century - except possibly Brancusi's and Mondrian's - was more thoughtfully conceived, plotted, and executed. Morandi knew exactly what he wanted and what he had to do to achieve it.
What concerned Morandi most, and always remained central to his art, was the hidden meaning that he knew lay within and beyond appearance. Finding and giving form to that mysterious quality was what mattered. Bottles, boxes, and vases as such did not. They just happened to be handy as subjects. They didn't decay as fruit and vegetables did, they could be moved about at will, and they didn't complain about being tired. Just as important, they permitted him to project an aura of classical detachment that fitted in well with his creative vision.
But if he wasn't concerned about the precise appearance of things, he also wasn't interested in purely formal invention. His images, as a result, hover somewhere between the two 20th century artistic extremes of representationalism and abstraction, and more often than not, embody the best of both viewpoints.
What made his still lifes so special was the extraordinarily serene, timeless aura with which they resonated. Standing in front of one of them, one knew somehow that both eternity and perfection existed, for if they didn't, how could Morandi possibly have brought evidence of them to life in these simple images?
It certainly was a mystery, and one that deepened with greater exposure to his work.
The more one saw his paintings, the more convinced one became that they had little, if anything, to do with physical reality, and that his still-life subjects were merely convenient devices for actualizing his intimations of the wholeness of life, or as others might put it, the divine.
In an age of painterly exuberance and experimentation, Morandi's exquisitely harmonized, subtly reverential canvases struck many - especially when they first appeared - as simplistic and naive. Several decades of art-world exuberance and experimentation, however, have brought dramatic changes. Now he appears the wiser, and most of his more flamboyant contemporaries seem simplistic and naive.
His recent show was pure delight. It was small, with only a handful of canvases and a few prints, but it was carefully chosen and showed Morandi at his best.
Entering the gallery and catching sight of the first still life, I knew with absolute certainty that I was in the presence of exceptional integrity and truth.
When I walked from painting to painting, all inner pressures, doubts, and insecurities vanished, and in their place I felt a kind of joy that made me feel more whole, more alive, more myself, than I had when I entered the gallery.
I don't know what that signifies, but I know it is important. And I know it can only be gotten from art that is true, that probes beneath the surface to make contact with, and to give form and expression to, the deeper realities and mysteries of life.
It doesn't matter that this level of art is rare, that only a dozen artists at most have even come close to it during this century. That is quite enough for our purposes - especially if we remain alert to it wherever and whenever it appears.