The many masks of modern art

For the first time in Western art, an artist can do exactly as he pleases. He can start from nothing and create his art out of two or three daubs of paint, a piece of tin suspended from a wire, or a triangular canvas painted blue. Or he can faithfully transcribe anything in the world around him into a flat or a three-dimensional work of art.

It's entirely up to him. Success may or may not come his way, but if it doesn't it won't be merely because he failed to follow a particular tradition, an approved style, or the rules of an official academy.

This is the way things are today, and I for one am all for it even though I know that, for some, this freedom is a booby trap and the quickest way to self-deception and creative chaos.

I'm all for it because I've seen the overall results of this increasing freedom, the way it has given artists of all ages, styles, and backgrounds the extraordinary opportunity to probe beyond the frontiers of our age without fear or inhibition, and to present the rest of us with evidence of that probing.

No, it's not freedom that concerns me -- even if its misapplication creates problems for some -- but the issue of creative responsibility.

To what extent do we understand what this means or implies? Do we, as a matter of fact, even acknowledge that such a thing exists? And, when we speak of creative responsibility, whom do we see as the ones obliged to uphold it? The artist, the art teacher, the critic, dealer, curator, collector? Who?

As in all things that have to do with art, it's the artist who must bear the brunt of this responsibility. It is he who is on the "front lines," he who must risk everything to create, and who must "return" with work that is all of a piece and comprehensible (immediately or ultimately) to the rest of society.

The rest of us who labor in the world of art might wish this to be otherwise, but we are merely on the fringes of creativity and must deal with its end products, not with its sources, must owe our professional identities to the fact that others produce what we discuss, applaud, condemn, sell, buy, or hang on museum walls.

And yet, the responsibility for art's obedience to its highest ideals ism partly up to us. We may not create art, but we can guide and encourage those who do. And, most particularly, we can give support to those artists who, gropingly or with genius, are committed to art's deepest levels of integrity and creativity.

Over the years I have met quite a few such artists. They have been of all ages, nationalities, and stylistic persuasions. There have been as many women as men -- though I've noticed that the balance has begun to shift and that there are now more promising women artists than men.

One of these artists is Barbara Valenta, a creator of constructions made of cloth, canvas, and wood, which are frequently painted various colors but often are left quite plain. They exist on walls, hang from ceilings, balance themselves precariously from the floor, or seem to take off and fly like birds.

They seem to, but they don't. And that is what first intrigued me about her work: the fact that its wonderfully freeing and expansive quality is kept in perfect balance with, and operated in exquisite counterpoint to, a profound sense of life's laws, realities, and moral implications.

While such a work as "Cadmium Yellow/IX," reproduced on this page, exists as an object in and of itself, it also serves as an activator of the space around it. To grasp its point, and to discover its full effectiveness, we must understand that the construction itself is the heart, the diagram, of a much larger image, extending beyond the work itself. It becomes an image which our sensibilities create in fulfillment of the clues presented in the work itself.

Now I know this sounds rather grandiose and possibly at odds with what the photograph on this page conveys to the general reader. But then, it ism only a photograph, and a black-and-white one at that, and we are not conditioned to respond to nonrepresentational art in terms of the artist's joys and victories.

We hear and read about art's externals, about formal and technical matters, about a work's place in art history, or the effect it may have had upon another artist, but little, if anything, about its actual reason for being, its identity as a human, moral, or spiritual document.

In matters of pure design or decoration, an analysis limited to the externals would be enough. For that is what design and decoration are: pleasant arrangements of color, lines, shapes, textures. But this is not enough for a work of art, despite what the Constructivists claimed, and this is particularly true when dealing with work that strikes us as handsome and simple on the surface but which also tugs deeply, persistently, and possibly even disturbingly , at our hearts.

That tug is the clue to the point and significance of the work. To ignore it and to "read" the sculpture or painting exclusively as a formal exercise is to deny ourselves the chance to glimpse another concerned human being's deepest intuitions or intimations of reality. Or to share his or her insight into such matters as integrity, harmony, serenity, or truth.

I felt this tug when I first saw Valenta's work two years ago, and I have felt it even more in her recent constructions. The work is strong and consistent and carefully focused. What would be, in another artist, merely a collision or point of intersection between formal opposites becomes in her hands a simple, quiet moment of spiritual and formal resolution, even, at times, a quietly exultant leap of pure joy.

This is true even in the more recent constructions, which are less concerned with spatial thrusts and leaps than with the more earthbound mysteries of containment and enclosure -- with recessed places kept both private and open -- and in her projections for very large environmental pieces.

I have traced this tug at my sensibilities to various levels of feeling and experience. Most important, without doubt, is her joy in the act of doing her work and her enjoyment of what it represents and reflects. But much deeper than the level at which craft and creative intention fuse, and even deeper than the place where intuition becomes idea, lies her commitment to creative integrity and truth.

Valenta is a deeply responsible artist who deplores self-deception or the idea of creating art in a social or cultural vacuum. She wants her art to functionm in society as a symbolic representation of what is best in man.

All this has increasingly come into focus over the past two years. It's been a pleasure to watch her grapple with various ideas and approaches, and to observe how tiny hints and intuitions are gradually transformed into works of art.

Most of all, I've been impressed by her unswerving commitment to the integrity of her art and to the vision she is determined to make visible. She is genuinely creative and responsible artist, and artist from whom I personally have learned a great deal.

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