The tricky course of modern art: There's more than one path to follow

The positive and negative aspects of latter-day modernism are clearly demonstrated in a group exhibition here at the Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery. All of the artists included are established figures and have been around for quite some time. Roughly half have international reputations. The best known are Milton Avery, Christo, Paul Jenkins, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Pierre Soulages -- followed closely by Alan Davie, Joachim Berthold, Joseph Glasco, Lester Johnson, and Robert Natkin.

It's an impressive list in anyone's book, and all, with the exception of Avery, represented by good examples of their work.

But what struck me most of all was how much one of these artists has grown, and how badly the work of another one has turned out so far.

I've never paid particular attention to the paintings of Robert Natkin. Oh, they were pleasant enough, handsome and lyrical -- even lovely in a modified Klee, Bonnard, Rothko sort of way. But I could never really get deeply involved with them. They looked good on a wall -- and that was about it.

But over the last three or four years I've been forced to sit up and take notice. I found myself drawn to these subtle and oddly suggestive works. At first glance they looked so simple, so ephemeral. And yet I found that the more I studied them, the more they proved to be highly evocative interior landscapes, delicate pictorial universes in which the slightest smudge of blue next to an area of reddish brown, surrounded by tones of bleached yellow, triggered marvelously open feelings and musings in me.

I recently spent most of a day in a corporate office, one wall of which was particularly covered by a mural-size NAtkin painting. I remember relatively little of the business that took place in that office, but I'll never forget that painting. It was indeed a landscape, but a landscape made up of nothing one could possibly see in nature: a wide expanse, atmospheric in effect, made up a subtle textural variations, dots, squiggles of color, and an occasional nervous line. The relationship of formal elements, the spatial control -- both on the surface and in depth -- were in perfect balance with the highly lyrical and subjective mood of the work.

Although it appeared at first glance to be loosely and casually improvised, I realized after studying it during the day that it was actually exquisitely structured and designed.

Successful as it was, Natkin has topped it with his largest painting in this group show. In fact, the "Intimate Lighting Series" not only tops it, it goes considerably beyond it in opening up what one hopes will be new avenues of expression for this artist.

It is mural-size, predominantly blue -- and impossible to protograph in black and white. It is a legitimate descendant of both Monet's waterilly canvases and Klee's delicate watercolors and oils. But most of all it is itself: lovely, lyrical, and enchanting, a magical (and almost musical) universe within which our eyes and sensibilities are caught and led along the most subtle and provocative paths. It is a universe orchestrated by a creative sensibility that has obviously retained full and direct access to its creative resources.

But if Natkin has direct access to the sources of his creativity. Paul Jenkins seems to have lost the path to his. His latest paintings, including those in this exhibition, are among the emptiest and most barren being produced today. They are also among the most arrogant, the most representative of an attitude that feels art can be willed into being, that all it takes to create art is paint, power, and passion.

But it's not quite that simple, for all Jenkins produces by this method is the pictorial equivalent of noise. These harsh and I'm afraid vulgar paintings have all the trappings of genuine art, but none of its substance. They are chaotic, in the truest sense of the word, and are no closer to being art than is a stick of dynamite exploding in a street.

There was a time, a decade and a half ago, when it looked as though Jenkins was becoming a fairly good decorative painter, the sort whose works add a certain charm to a room without demanding too much attention. His paintings at that time were executed by floating various colors on flat canvas and causing them to spread in a semicontrolled fashion by lifting and shifting the canvas. What resulted was frequently rather handsome, even mildly provocative in a pleasant sort of way.

But this passive sort of creativity must have palled, for he now attacks the canvas with a vegeance not seen since the days of Abstract Expressionists. But his work has little of the art of Franz Kline, De Kooning, or Motherwell. Those artists, and all other painters who work in a blunt and direct style, are actively engaged in a formal dialogue -- only half of which stems from the paint. The canvas and what it represents -- dynamic space or whatever -- is that other half. It is alive, a vital and vibrant surface capable of responding actively to whatever the painter brings to ti, and is not inert or empty, or a dead surface to be attacked ferociously with a brush.

Yet that is precisely what Jenkins does. He bangs away at the canvas as though it were a huge drum -- an act that produces a great deal of "noise" but no music, and certainly no art.

Expressive energy or pretty effects do not of themselves create art. Neither is art a matter of bedazzlement or noise. Blatancy is a risky business and is valid only if it is absolutely necessary -- as in the case of Expressionists, the Abstract Expressionists, and a few others. The tragedy with Jenkin's work is that it used to make flashy effects, and now includes large and noisily aggressive strokes and slashes of paint.

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