The many masks of modern art

I must admit there are times when I'm heartily fed up with everything abstract, innovative, improvised, or idiosyncratic in art, and turn with immense relief to art that faithfully records the appearances of physical reality.

Actually, "records" is the wrong word. It makes the creative process sound too mechanical and unfeeling, and conjures up the image of an artist huddled over his canvas doing his very best to duplicate precisely what lies in front of him without any concern for its larger implications.

That's not what I mean at all. The sort of art I'm referring to is explicit not only about an object's surface realities, but about its capacity for life and liveliness as well. Almost anyone with a modicum of talent and patience can copy nature faithfully, but very few can give such a copy any semblance of life. And it is the rare artist indeed who can transmit life in all its sparkle and vibrancy to canvas. And yet, rare as that is, it's crucial to art. Without that quality of life, of vibrancy, a rendering from nature, no matter how breathtakingly precise and "real," is dead and thus not art.

But life in art can take many forms. It can pulsate and barely contain itself, as was the case with Van Gogh. It can explode as it does in the works of Soutine. It can vibrate gently as it does in the drawings of Klee, or --cult of all -- it can remain present but modestly intact, locked in and integral to whatever is being portrayed.

This lyrical, self-contained realistic art, represented most nobly in the past by Van Eyck, Vermeer, Velazquez, and more recently, by Manet and Degas, has unfortunately become one of the principal victims of 20th-century Modernism. and that's been true not only because Modernist theory and dogma denied that it had relevance for our age, but also because Modernism preached mightily about its historic demise.

However, it did not die. And as for cultural relevancy, well, we shall see. What did happen, though, is that this kind of representational art became, at best, a very minor voice among the thunderings, innovations, and idiosyncrasies of 20th-century art. It also went underground, not only in this country, but wherever Modernism was winning the battle to become this century's dominant voice in art. If its paintings and sculptures were seen at all, it was in so-called conservative galleries or in large national or international exhibitions representing cross sections of the art of a particular year of period.

It wasn't until the mid-1960s that this kind of art began to be taken seriously again, but even then only by a few dealers and critics who were able to see beyond the work's suspect representationalism to its special qualities as art. Most of these works were modest, as was the case with those by Giorgio Morandi, the outstanding master of this genre, and those by Herman Rose. The latter's small and often exquisite studies of street scenes and studio interiors can only be described as painterly gems. Similarly, the paintings of Fairfield Porter, while often quite large, also expressed a point of view that was intrinsically modest and self-contained.

These, and other works like them, began to push aside the accrued prejudices (mostly the result of Abstract Expressionism's missionary zeal) against anything even remotely representational in art. And, as their true, quality and worth became increasingly obvious once again in the 1970s, the lyric realists found themselves accepted and shown by more and more galleries, although they were often lumped together with the various New-Realists, a confusion appreciated by neither side, since modesty and lyricism were of slight interest to most of the New-Realists -- and of no interest at all to the Photo-Realists.

But while modesty and unpretentiousness may have played little, if any, part in the huge and uncompromisingly direct representational art produced by the various "super-realist" factions of the '70s, these qualities were crucial to the work of Morandi, Rose, and Porter, and, most particularly, to the work of a painter of very tiny still lifes, Robert Kulicke.

Kulicke is representative of a growing number of painters who are tired of the pyrotechnics of Modernism (and Post-Modernism) and are eager to attack and attend to the painterly basics of transcribing observed life into paint. His works have the directness and freshness of a child's first words, and the clarity and finality of "2 and 2 equals 4." They often consist of nothing but a single fruit or vase-with-flower repeated, with slight variations, in canvas after canvas. As Kulicke himself has written, "I paint the same setup 10, 15, 20 times and I bore many people, including myself sometimes, but I never intended to entertain or to be entertained, only to get it right."

And he does, not by mimicking nature, but by transcribing perception into paint. Constant attempts to "get it right" have resulted in tiny canvases in which a dozen or so planes and tones fall into their most perfect painterly places with the inexorableness and beauty of pure logic.

Another artist of modest scale and pretensions is the contemporary French sculptor Georges Jeanclos, whose small terracotta figures of people sleeping, falling asleep, or just awakening thoroughly enchanted me when I saw them for the first time last fall.

These delicately modeled figures exude a quality of vulnerability that makes us want to pick them up and protect them. They are minor miracles of realistic craftsmanship and attention to detail, but, most of all, they are quiet metaphors for human consciousness.

Here then, are two artists whose work has nothing whatever to do with the ideals or actualizations of Modernism, and who, yet, are full participants in 20 th-century art. Both are artists, despite the unwillingness of the believers in Modernism to accept them fully as such. And both represent a growing number of artists around the world seeking a simpler and more harmonious artistic relationship between themselves and the physical phenomena of the world around them. While that may sound reactionary to some, it could merely be the awakening of something that has been too long ignored by 20th-century art.

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