The many masks of modern art

Eccentricity has played a considerable role in 20th-century art. In addition to the work of the Dadaists, Surrealists, Expressionists, Pop artists, etc., we have had the highly idiosyncratic art of Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon, Ernst Fuchs, Jean Tinguely, Red Grooms, and Paul Wunderlich, the visual trickery of M. C. Escher and Victor Vasarely, and the dense and convoluted worlds of Ivan Albright and Jean Dubuffet. Throughout this century and on every level of achievement, there have been artists more concerned about dramatizing their individuality than about conforming to an ideal or a fashion, and those who preferred to probe and given form to the odd, the exotic, the idiosyncratic, rather than to the ordinary, the safe, and the typical.

Personally, I'm all for it even though eccentricity has a way of making pictorial mountains out of artistic molehills -- of causing tiny talents to believe themselves giants. For eccentricity in art to be valid, however, it must be deep-seated and indigenous to the creator, not something worn externally like a purple cape or a mask. It must derive from the artist's character, from his commitment to his humanity and his vsion. And, while it may sometimes take on an air of frivolity and of abandon, it cannot of itself be frivolous or abandoned, but rather, utilize these qualities to illuminate deeper and more inaccessible realities.

If truth be told, eccentricity, in the long runs, is more of a liability than an asset to an artist, for it is something to be taken into account and "forgiven" before the art itself can be accepted. El Greco's eccentricities as an artist were, after all, not really "forgiven" until the very early years of this century, and Blake's are still unforgiven in certain quarters.

The main reason for this is that we generally recognize that eccentricity in art can be an excellent cover for lack of talent or originality. It's much too easy to invent and to concoct (often with brilliant technique) pictorial extravanganzas whose real reason for being is to impress and to call attention to themselves and to their creators. I am particularly aware of this whenever I view large numbers of one-person exhibitions by, ambitious but not-as-yet-established artists, and find myself confronted by an occasional work that is the pictorial equivalent of someone wearing a clown suit while thumbing his nose, pointing to himself, and standing on his head.

And this kind of thing isn't helped any by the circus atmosphere generated and upheld by certain portions of the art press -- and by some of the museum curators who assemble the increasing number of "new talent" shows confronting us every year.

If I didn't know better I could easily begin to share the opinion of those opposed to any form of "modern" or nonrepresentational art that there is a strong tendency today to turn art into a carnival act, into a sideshow of freaks. And to agree with them that the age-old virtues of discretion, balance, taste, harmony, are being shoved aside by grossness, vulgarity, and calculated eccentricity.

But I don't agree, because I know from personal experience that the eccentric and often vulgar works that tend to dominate these "new talent" museum shows are the exception rather than the rule as far as the art world as a whole is concerned. However, there is much excellent innovation and "conservative" art all around us which isn't given equal prominence because it is either too modest or too discreet -- or because it isn't supported by impressive critical verbiage. It simply boggles the mind to see show after show of highly talented artists -- and then to see none of these artists (or at most two or three) represented in the museum shows -- to see instead (among otherwise excellent pieces) things of such crudity and vulgarity, of such calculated artificiality, that it requires the wildest sort of imagination to label them as art.

Now, there's nothing wrong with eccentricity -- if it's basic to the artist. And there's nothing wrong with vulgarity as such in art; it can even the balance with the precious and the esoteric. Nor is a touch of crudeness out of place in works that attempt to present a rounded picture of reality, or to poke a bit of fun. If there were, we would have to disregard Bruegel, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and, in own day, Picasso, Miro, and Dubuffet.

What I object to is vulgarity and crudity for their own sakes -- or as the expression of a point of view that delights in doing outlandish or offensive things for no other reason than that they haven't as yet found their way into art -- and are thus certain to create attention.

To some artists, the best proof of their own existence comes through the performance and the acceptance of their art. By creating art, and by creating a response in others through that art, they prove to themselves that they really exist, that they -- and what they think and feel -- are real.

For such individuals (and I'm by no means claiming that all artists feel this way), the act of creating art is to a large extent the act of saying, "Look at me. Notice me. Be moved or excited by what I've made -- and thus acknowledge my existence!"

If such an artists has talent, if he grasps and work somewhere within the Zeitgeistm (and thus speaks for his time as well as for himself), and if he has sufficient detachment to view his work critically, there is no reason why such a person should not be able to create art.

Ivan Albright is such a contemporary artist, who has created a few marvelous works of art and a larger number of works of uncompromising vulgarity. What history will say of the latter I do not know (although I'm certain they will be around for a long time as object lessons in technique, if nothing else), but I'm quite positive that those half-dozen or so paintings of his which can be called art will be rated among the most fascinating American pictures of this century.

They will also, I believe, be considered among the best -- not only because of the ideas behind them, but also because of the intriguing questions they raise on both symbolic and physical levels. For physical they are, with superreal surfaces that insist on being touched if for no other reason than to determine the true nature of their extraordinary detail.

Albright's art rivets our attention (and, in his best work, sustains it) by the device of freezing time and then encrusting the entire surface of the canvas with maximum detail. We are literally wrenched out of our normal sense of time by the frozen clutted of his compositions, and find that our sensibilities are momentarily trapped in a world within which there is no air, no time, and no movement.

What happens next is entirely up to us. We can feel uncomfortable and turn away, or we can be fascinated and intrigued, can even feel a kind of awe at the patience and persistence of this artist, who must -- and does -- spend years on a canvas such as the one of this page. If we are truly drawn to the work, it won't be long before we want to know all we can about the artist, who he is, how he paints so precisely, and, most of all, why he does it in the first place. He will, in other words, have impressed himself upon our consciousness through his art. And we, in a way, will have verified that he truly exists.

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