The many masks of modern art

Too little has been written about the joy of doing what one does best -- about the pleasure of mastering an art or craft, or the deep satisfaction that comes from gentling a stubborn or elusive work of art into being.

Too little has also been made of the fact that creating art is an act of love , that the doing of it requires the same kind of giving, the same kind of alert and total involvement, essential to any other profound human act.

We also too often fail to realize that art belongs at least as much to the creator as to the viewer. It is an act of exhilaration, labor, and spiritual overflowing whose greatest reward lies in the making and in the sharing of it. Ravishing as all the art in the world may be, it is but a shadow of what its creators saw and felt as they brought it into being.

There are times, I must admit, when discussing art with art professionals who have never painted or drawn (and who speak of paintings or drawings as things,m or as valuable property, and of artists as annoyances), that I'm tempted to point out that the paintings they are so happy to own or sell, and which give them such wealth and prestige, are only stuffed birds compared with the flying eagles and singing larks that exist within every artist's soul.

Now it could be said that this is true of all of us, that we all lead rich and imaginative inner lives, are all artists under the skin. And that is indeed true to a point. For art is more than just emotion and imagination. It is also a matter of form, of shaping the best possible bridge between what one person feels and sees and what another can share.

The glory of being an artist lies not so much in feeling life sing within oneself as in being able to evoke similar feelings in others. All depends on that. And yet this urge, this driving need to do more than passively experience emotions and ideas -- to, in fact, devote one's life to trying to share those realities with others -- is barely understood by the millions who visit museums, read books, or attend concerts.

There are those who say that this is how it should be, that it is of no more importance for the viewer to understand the artist than for someone eating bread to understand the farmer who harvested the wheat that went into the making of it.

I disagree. Art is not merely a product, albeit a nourishing one; neither does an artist create the way a farmer plants and harvests grain. The artist may not always know precisely why he does what he does, but he has profound instincts about the howm of it and is always working toward an ultimate understanding of the whym as well.

The artist is always present in his work, whether the art is as warmly human as Rembrandt's or as coolly idealized as Mondrian's. To try to leave the artist out of any appreciation of art is stupid, if not impossible. At least it is in this day and age, when viewer and creator are being forced into increasingly close proximity with each other.

In fact, if there is one great difference between 20th-century modernism and the art of the past, it lies in the fact that with the former the viewer is more deeply drawn into the actual creative process than ever before. The distance between artist and viewer has decreased rapidly during the past 100 years; the two are, as often as not, locked in a tight bear hug.

Hardly ever does the artist of today draw the curtain on the stage which is his art, bow, and invite us to enjoy ourselves -- as was the case up to and including the Impressionists. The artist of today is much more likely to insist that the viewer not only get on stage himself, but also help a bit in the construction of the set.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the paintings of Franz Kline and the sculpture of Anthony Caro. Both artists have a great deal to say, but both insist that the viewer must enter a very direct and intimate formal dialogue with them -- or they will remain forever mute.

This is especially true of Kline, who removed everything the least bit seductive or elegant from his art. A Kline painting is always a direct and total confrontation, and we must immediately respond to it -- or walk away.In "Mahoning," for instance, the broad strokes of the brush are actually directed at us and at our sensibilities. To experience this work we must react as directly and immediately as we would to a boxer challenging us or to a fencer lunging at us with his foil.

It is thrust and counterthrust; where he jabs, we parry. No holds are barred. And, as we respond to and move with this direct expression of Kline's energy and passion, we also begin to experience something of what he wanted to communicate to us. We share with him the drama of black and white, the excitement of "pushing" the white canvas back or of letting it move forward to create positive (even aggressive) areas of white. He lets us share, in other words, the experience of trying to sum up the quality of life and art in as few black and white lines and areas as possible.

Caro is not so blunt. There are elegance and seductiveness in his work. But , while he may be a bit more of a gentleman, he is no less insistent upon engagement than Kline.

Only with him it's more relaxed, more like a serious conversation between friends or scholars. He speaks, and we respond -- but only after listening very carefully.

Caro is totally civilized and never pushes us to understand. He gives us time to follow the elegant lines, the intriguing movements, the novel twists and turns of his formal relationships, just as a wise and patient teacher gives us time to follow the elegance of his thought or the inevitability of his logic.

And yet, different as Kline and Caro may be, both represent a dominant 20 th-century attitude toward art. One that sees art as immediate, direct, and skeletal, that makes the viewer as much participant as spectator and insists that, unless we pay very close attention, we will miss the whole point of such art.

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