The many masks of modern art

Even the most elusive truths are capable of finding their voices through art. In fact, art has spent the better part of this past century preparing itself for them.

Art can be counted on when all else fails, when reason, logic, common sense, and science can neither capture nor communicate those infinitely fugitive glimpses of truth, those subtle intuitions of the ineffable, those all too quickly neutralized aches for totality and harmony which we all see, sense, or feel from time to time.

And of all the vital art movements, Modernism has been the one most particularly concerned with giving form to the inexpressible, to things previously only sensed or felt, or to intimations of order, harmony, and perfection. It is also the only movement in the visual arts specifically designed to deal with what exists between the lines of human experience, or to begin with nothing but a subterranean impulse and a smear of paint, and to surface a bit later with a symbol of human truth or aspiration.

Modernism, in other words, has concerned itself not only with the big formal and thematic issues of its day, but also with the cracks and crevices, the nuances, hints, and intimations of life and of human feelings previous art movements were either too busy or too arrogant to care about.

Western art before our time thundered, ennobled, and entertained, made profound statements about the nature and purpose of man, scaled mountains and delighted in vast vistas, depicted gods, popes, kings, and peasants, described battles, cities, oceans, and the heavens -- did all it could to enchant and to uplift -- but never once did it try to portray anything as fugitive as a firefly , as heartbreakingly lyrical as a tiny bird singing away in the moonlight, as mysterious as sounds in the night, as achingly beautiful as the essence of a bird in flight, as complex as the movement of a nude descending a staircase, or as maddeningly impossible to portray as perfection itself.

And yet, all these and thousands of other "impossible" tasks have been attempted by 20th-century modernism. Of them all, however, none has been more difficult than its various attempts to give pictorial form to its intuitions of perfection.

The problem with attempting to depict perfection is that it seems too easy. Just draw a perfect circle, and that's it.

But it's not. Such a representation is static and cold, and totally devoid of the sense of both peace and exhilaration brought about by an intuition or an intimation of perfection. Perfection is dynamic, or it could not include life, and so any attempt to portray it as seamless and finished is to miss its point.

The human creature can catch only the most fleeting glimpse of perfection -- and then only in its most primitive and formative state. Our intuition takes the form of an increased awareness of order and harmony, of a greater clarification of our identity and role. It is always dynamic and forward-moving , a glimpse of something beyond -- but mostly it exists as a powerful feeling of imminent and inevitable integration, an irresistible sense that everything is finally about to fall into place.

The point I want to make -- and it's a crucial one -- is that our truest intuitions of perfection are more feelings of becomingm than they are visions of a static final state. Any static image purporting to represent perfection is, by the very nature of its frozen stillness, way off the mark.

All most, a work of art is a road sign pointing the way. It can never inform us that thism is perfection, only that perfection definitely, probably, or possibly (depending on the self-certainty of the artist) lies in this or that direction.

All a work of art can do is to stimulate a desire for perfection and then present us with one artist's schematic or symbolic reconstruction of the path hem took to catch a glimpse of it. The artist sees, senses, feels, and then creates a map for us to follow.

And we, on our part, must follow that "map" if we are to have any chance of understanding what the artist wants to share with us -- let alone actually sharing it. If we rear back and refuse to even thinkm of responding because the "map" doesn't resemble a Rembrandt or a Renior, well then, we are the losers, for we have turned our backs on something that might have enriched our lives.

I'm not saying that it will necessarily do so, only that it might, and that we should at least give it a chance.

With that in mind, I'd like to examine a particular work of art by Ben Nicholson, the contemporary English painter whose art, while mainly derived from Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism - both very "pure" and highly "abstract" styles -- was also influenced by a deep and continual study of natural phenomena. He, in turn, exerted a tremendous influence upon English art of the post-World War II era.

"Curved Panel: Rangitania" is a large oil painting on a slightly curved board. Including the frame, which is an integral part of the composition, it stands almost seven feet high, and is roughly five feet wide. Its colors are muted and subtle, and tend toward soft browns and off-grays.

It is an extremely handsome and elegant work, and would look at home in either a contemporary or more traditional setting. Although it may appear wildly "modern" to some, it is actually, considering all that's happened in art during these past 40 years, a middle-of-the-road, even a conservative, piece of modernist art.

But it ism "modern," and it has to do with what I've been discussing in this article: intuitions and intimations of perfection -- and the "road maps" toward it created by artists for the rest of us to follow.

The painting may at first appear static, but it's not. The entire composition is made up of the most delicate tensions, adjustments, checks, and balances. To enter it is to enter a process in which a dozen or so lines and forms, and as many colors, textures, and tones, are kept in an exquisitely controlled state of equilibrium, an equilibrium as perfect and as finely honed as that of any Swiss watch.

While we may stand stock-still before this work, our sensibilities project toward it and involve themselves with all its subtle tensions and balances. We imagine what the picture would look like without the circle -- or without the small, dark vertical rectangle at top center -- and we realize that its perfect balance, the picture's tendency toward formal perfection, would diminish if they were removed or altered.

And this applies to everything else in the composition as well. Everything in it, from the darkened tone in the left foreground, to the precise placement, color, and emphasis of the two dark forms below the circle, to the "smudges" on the light surfaces, are the result of Nicholson's devoted and sensitive attempt to bring us up to the level of his perception of truth and formal order. I've viewed this painting at least a dozen times, and each time I've stood in front of it all its tiny and subtle tensions and balances worked their magic on me. I had the feeling that Nicholson's intuition was falling into place for me much as a vault's tumblers fall into place the moment before its lock is opened.

This painting is his gift to us. He doesn't presume to tell us that this ism perfection, only that perfection can be glimpsed,m that he believes he has done so, and that he would love to share the experience with us through his art.

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