The many masks of modern art -- VIII

We identify an art through its craft, savor its character through its style, and gauge its significance through its form. Style expresses a point of view. It can be elegant, animated, turgid, lyrical, cramped, drab, etc. It tells us about the artist's attitudes toward himself and toward the world, and reflects how he wants to be seen, how he postures, and how blatant or seductive he can be.

Form, on the other hand, is the artist's verdict on reality, his deepest and firmest decision on the meaning and nature of life. It represents his perception of the point of stability between the momentum of self and the realities of others, and reflects his insight into laws and circumstances beyond his own. It is an act of transcendence over passion, and is his recognition of the need for resolutions and reconciliation.

Two of this century's most dedicated advocates of art as form were Piet Mondrian and Edward Hopper. Both artists distilled and compressed their vision of reality into the most compact of images, and were ruthless in the elimination of everything in their art which didn't contribute to the most emphatic articulation of that vision.

But, while both focused intensively on the irreducible, they disagreed violently on what it was.

Of the two, Mondrian was by far the more puristic and absolute. He boiled his art down to the very minimum and divorced it from any association with the appearances of physical reality. It could be said that the basic difference between Mondrian and Hopper was the difference between seeing the sun as a perfect circle and seeing it as round and hot. Or the difference between seeing grass as green and seeing it as green and growing. To Mondrian, the way the world looked had nothing to do with art. He was willing to risk censure and ridicule in order to free painting from the tyranny of illusion. He threw all of his eggs into the basket of formal reduction.

And indeed, that is how Mondrian's critics do perceive him: as an artist overly concerned about codifying reality, as too involved in painting the skeleton of life to see its flesh-and-blood humanity.

Art, these critics remind us, has to do with man, for man shapes and forges it, draws enjoyment and meaning from it. It is his cultural litmus paper, weather vane, compass, and lightning rod all rolled into one.

But what, they ask, do Mondrian's three or four intersecting lines and his few touches of color have to do with man and his realities? Can one feel uplifted by looking at them? Or delighted? Or comforted?

No, they say, and so his paintings cannot be art. We recognize neither ourselves nor our world in them.

They feel divorced from Mondrian's art, incapable of identifying or emphatizing with it. Its perfection and finality block any attempts to enter into creative dialogue with it.

They feel art should be vulnerable, should reflect something of man's imperfections and questionings. They are more than willing to give over to art, but first must feel that its formal resolutions are relevant to, and drawn from, man's fears, loves, and expectations.

They prefer that art's beauty, wholeness, even its unique kind of perfection, come about within the sensibilities of the viewer, and not be spelled out too precisely on the canvas. A painting should suggest perfection, not attempt to paint it, or the viewer is deprived of his chance to experience the formulation of such "perfection" in himself.

A work of art, then, exists to trigger a response or a quality in the viewer. To attempt to paint that quality itself is to paint only its idea.

That, they claim, is all Mondrian did, and so what he produced was not art.

Hopper, however, was to them another matter. He invited everyone into his canvases and into his inner feelings. We know exactly where we stand with him. We recognize his anxieties, doubts, and hopes as our own, and so are respectful and impressed by the way his art gives them formal significance.

Hopper's pictorial form is the outward manifestation of his attitude toward life. It tells us that aloneness is the central human condition, and that man's salvation and greatness can only come about by confronting and surmounting the pain of that loneliness. But it must be done with fortitude and equanimity.

That vision of human reality and of humman courage is the irreducible element in Hopper's art. Every shape, line, tone, and color in his work contributes to it. Even the quality of light for which he was famous has its roots in the desire to create an atmosphere of clarity. The wide windows, large expanses of buildings, and the sunlit surfaces in "Office in a Small City" all do their bit to establish this painting's haunting sense. But they also give dignity and serenity to the scene by the sensitive way they have been fashioned and composed.

By applying all his skills and sensibilities to the creation of an image that stabilizes and transcends human alienation, Hopper permits us to share with him some of the elements of his personal dignity and courage.

Mondrian saw things very differently. To him the irreducible was the intersection of vertical and horizontal lines and the primary colors. To him these simple means signified the division of life into its fundamental oppositions -- and thus served as the basis for an art of spiritual truth. To him art staked out new frontiers and established guidelines for the extension of the human spirit.

Mondrian risked everything -- he had been an extremely good realistic painter -- to chart new ground. If the art of today is seen as a growing tree, Mondrian was one of its highest and most extended twigs.

Hopper, on the other hand, was a bit further down. A solid branch, perhaps, or a portion of the trunk. He wasn't aiming for the sky, but he was helping to nourish those who were.

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