The freedom to move
Some artists bloom early, some late. Some others bloom differently in different parts of their lives and sooner or later are discovered as sources of more than one distinct kind of enjoyment. Alban Berg's "Seven Early Songs," for instance, now offer special pleasures for many who have found his later twelve-tone fragmenting of the scale less sympathetic.
This represents a welcome and liberative trend. During the past century and until recently, the art world moved from style to style according to the old avant-garde system, by means of which the "best" people were stylistically "ahead" of all the others. Ever since the impressionist painters in France turned their backs on the Academy during the 1870s there had been one new frontier after another to be amazed or outraged at -- and eventually to assimilate. To start with, the post-impressionism of Cezanne and Van Gogh led the way toward cubism on one side and expressionism on the other -- exploring respectively structure and feeling. The subsequent succession of other "isms" eventually wound its way down past the minimal to the conceptual. This last tended to swallow up the essence of art itself and to spit back only the bits and pieces of process -- the nuts and bolts -- but little enough of the engine.
As a result, the advance guard has effectively put itself out of business, with nothing much left to advance orm guard.
And perhaps usefully. Because now that the artists have stopped jogging "ahead," or holding out in the rearguard against the other joggers, they've been freer to look around in all directions in time, even backward. They've nosed their way back into the "outgrown" and overshadowed phases of style, and in two degrees -- that of the historical period, such as any of the past times and phases of realism; and that of the individual period, such as the early work of a major artist or composer.
A season or two ago Hirschl and Adler, one of the big New York galleries, showed a group of early paintings by Stuart Davis. These watercolors were done between about 1911 and 1913, when the artist had a studio in Hoboken and was ferrying back and forth across the Hudson to classes with the epochal teacher, Robert Henri. They are obviously influenced by such advanced contemporaries of Davis' as John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, Everett Shinn -- and Toulouse-Lautrec. But their sense of the people and the places -- their voice -- is in a distinct and pungent way the artist's own.
In the course of time, having seen and been involved with the trend-setting Armory show of 1913, Davis discarded this particularly breathable atmosphere for the clean- lined, brightly colored abstractions by which he is well known today. That style is most typically and conveniently Stuart Davis. It is a definitive style, but not the only one with gifts for us.
Equally identifiable and equally definitive is the intense serialism of Alban Berg's most mature style, in comparison with the early songs. Yet in the good recordings of these now available we can enjoy not only the exciting moments of arrival but also the most eventful moments of passage, fragrant and richly chromatic. We no longer need to apologize for the choices we make (or to feel like worms for catching the early Berg).
Such liberation is especially desirable when it shows a Davis or a Berg coming to each period of his work with particular gifts and sensitivity. Perceptions during the earlier stages are sometimes lost in the more authoritative later strategy, yet are certainly more interesting than somebody else's mature (or even "advanced") routine.
An artist should have complete freedom to move. In a way, the most mature Berg showed more of this freedom than did either his mentor Schonberg or his colleague von Webern. In his final completed work he turned "back" all the way to a Bach chorale: his Violin Concerto, a deeply felt elegy in memory of young Manon Gropius, incorporates, toward the end, Bach's harmonization of the chorale "Es ist genug"m ("It is enough"). As Berg's close friend and biographer Willi Reich has written, "The use of the Chorale is a significant new elementm in Berg's creative development."
Perhaps, now, we no longer need to take sides between early and late, past and future, but may enjoy the unfolding of excellence at one stage without prejudicing our attitude toward a different stage. Perhaps we can even speak, as we turn to a Hoboken watercolor by Davis or an early song by Berg, of moving forward, ahead, en avancem in our estimation of the artist's whole language.