The many masks of modern art

It would be difficult to find 20th-century cityscapes more dissimilar than the two reproduced on this page -- even though both deal with similar subjects. Both depict urban structures highly acclaimed for their audacity and originality at the time they were built. In Robert Delaunay's painting it's Eiffel Tower in Paris, which, in 1910, was still considered sensationally daring and modern, and, in Richard Estes', it's New york's famous Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But, having said that, we have exhausted what they have in common, and must address ourselves to their differences.

The principal difference is illusion; the Estes has it and the Delaunay doesn't. The Estes goes all out to represent an actual scene as it actually looked at an actual moment of time, while the Delaunay uses the Eiffel Tower merely as a point of departure for some rather extravagant formal experimentation.

The Delaunay is one more step in that artist's evolution toward abstraction; he tried his best to fuse steely-eyed observation of "real" life with the formal lessons learned from Cubism and Constructivism. The main difference between Sheeler and Estes, however, lies in what happened to American painting between the emergence of Abstract Expressionism around 1947, and the time Pop art began to lose its clout.

In those roughly twenty years, American painting was traumatized as never before. Everything that could happen to it did happen to it. But it survived.

The price of survival, however, was loss or innocence, and it is that loss that can be seen in an Estes and not in a Sheeler or a Delaunay.

An Estes painting reflects total disillusionment with pictorial emotionalism, improvisation, and invention -- and an almost desperate need to establish and to verify creative identity by looking at the world and saying, "Yes, thism is real!"

But disenchantment does not necessarily mean starting all over again. many things can be harvested from what one has turned against. And, in the case of Estes and the Estes, one more step toward both total dependency upon, and total manipulation of, illusion in that artists's search for the perfect fusion of physical authenticity and formal ideal.

The Delaunay is one of the opening guns of 20th-century modernism, the Estes one of modernism's intermittent conciliatory ges tures toward the traditional mainstream of Western art.

But it would be a mistake to see the latter as proof either of a general return to realism, or of the demise of abstraction. Quite to the contrary. In Estes' paintings direct observation and painterly transcription of reality are not ends in themselves but serve to give credence to works of such sophisticated formal structure that, next to some of the most acomplished abstract and nonobjective art, they hold their own as design. Estes does not copy blindly, but blends physical fact with highly imaginative organizational skills to product pictures that owe almost as much to Mondrian as to photography.

In that respect he resembles Charles Sheeler of an earlier generation, who also best of the Photo-Realists, that meant retaining the pictorial organization and structure taught this century by abstract and nonobjective art.

The art of this century, because it has little tradition to help validate it, needs desperately to score points. If art is seen as a baseball game, and the artists as runners, the artists or our time are continually hurling themselves toward home plate -- at precisely the moment the ball arrives there. Whether the runner scores or is called out is then up to the umpire, who, in this case, is the influential art critic, museum curator, gallery dealer, or collector.

Needless to say, every decision is both roundly booed and applauded, but, generally, it sticks. We are so full of doubt and uncertainty in matters of art today that a little authority and firmness go a long way.

It is this desperate need to score, to get to home plate before the ball, which characterizes so much 20th-century art, and especially the art of this post-World War II period. Score and everything else are forgiven.

The major artists of our time have been home run kings. When Picasso came to bat he hit the ball so hard and so far that our eyes were riveted on it as it soared over the ballpark -- and when we looked down at the field again, he was safely home. With Pollock it was the same, although he always had to race the ball down to the wire. And today someone will occasionally hit a home run -- as Motherwell did in his recent mural-size painting for Washington's National Gallery -- that scores so emphatically that we aren't even aware of whether the artist ran the bases or not.

But we also have our share of players who strike out, only to get to first or second base, or hover on third waiting for their chance to dash home.

It's my personal opinion that Delaunay, original and important as he was, was tagged out as he was trying to steal third base, but that Estes is dead set on crossing home plate -- and has done all he can to ensure it.

Being a post-World War II representational painter, he needed to go "beyond" anything "realistic" which had been done before. And it had to be done within the climate of the time. That meant a realism totally devoid of sentimentality or Romanticism, a realism as cool and detached as a crisp photographic image. It also meant achieving a pictorial structure of such clarity and force as to satisfy the most demanding modernist taste.

What he produced is an art based on observation and on color photographers, "corrected" by an extraordinary formal sensibility closely attuned to all that has happened in recent nonrepresentational art -- a sensibility capable of fusing the most blatant realism with the most exquisite design and form.

I don't think Estes has crossed home plate yet. I don't even know if any Photo-Realist is capable of doing so; it may be too calculated and unhuman a movement. But if any can, i suspect it will be Estes. He has, as a matter of fact, already come quite close.

The next in this series appears on October 28. m

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