The many masks of modern art

Probably the most startling thing about 20th-century American art has been its tendency to swing back and forth from one extreme to another.

We've no sooner become comfortable with one style or movement than a new one erupts upon the scene. Thus the pendulum has swung from turn-of-the-century neo-classicism to Impressionism, the Ashcan School, the synchromists, precisionists and other modernist movements of the 1910s and 1920s, the Regionalist and American School painters, the Abstract Expressionists, pop art, minimalism and conceptualism, photorealism, new-imagism; and now to whatever is about to pop in New York's SoHo, on the West Coast, in Chicago - or wherever.

The most abrupt and dramatic change, however, took place in the mid-1940s when an entire way of looking at art, and an entire generation of American artists, were, to all intents and purposes, wiped off the face of the earth by the impact of what later came to be known as Abstract Expressionism.

What had been the private gropings and realizations of such figures as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still became, almost overnight, public declarations of a new direction and a new adventure in American and world art.

From a vision of art that saw American themes and landscapes as the only fit subjects for American painting, and international modernism as one of the arch-villains of our age, we moved to an art that was totally ''abstract,'' subjective, and intuitive - and that saw itself and its painters as modernism's legitimate heirs.

Among the younger and brighter of these new ''heirs'' was an ex-philosophy and art history student named Robert Motherwell who had already, in his mid to late twenties, painted pictures quite unlike anything we had ever seen before.

He had also befriended some of this century's leading artists -- men like Mondrian, Ernst, Duchamp, and Masson, for example -- who had fled Europe because of World War II and were making their temporary homes in New York.

All this was heady stuff. It obviously, however, was precisely what our fledgling artist needed. In 1942, after a trip to Mexico with the Chilean surrealist, Matta Echaurren, he settled permanently in New York and began his career with several exceptional works. Of these, his 1943 ''Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive'' is probably the best known.

By 1950 he was well on his way to international fame with the first of his ''Elegies to the Spanish Republic.'' These are black-and-white paintings, drawings, and smallish studies -- the total number was ultimately, over the next twenty years, to exceed one hundred -- in which solid black ovoid shapes are played off against vertical strips and areas of white. The effect is stark and jarring. At the same time, there was something oddly elegant about the way these black-and-white images fulfilled their pictorial roles. It was almost as though they were -- despite their titles -- taking their cues more from that great French ''decorator,'' Matisse, than from the more tragically expressive and Spanish, Picasso.

Their dry, moderately bitter, and subtly aristocratic elegance was central to Motherwell's art at that time, and has remained an essential feature ever since. This very special quality - I've always felt that Voltaire would have responded well to it - is one of the main reasons I suspect Motherwell has remained such a special favorite of the French. And why they have accepted him as one of the very few civilized artists we have so far produced.

This quality is also apparent in his numerous collages, which remain among the few post-World War II works in this genre to continue what had been begun by Picasso, Braque, and Schwitters, earlier in the century. His ability to fashion an image out of a few washes of color, an area of black, a few lines, two or three torn bits of construction paper, a label or two, and possibly a cluster of used foreign stamps has remained unsurpassed.By the late 1960s, Motherwell was into his ''Open'' series. Coming upon the first of these at that time was something of a shock to those of us familiar mainly with his black-and-white images. These new works were much more ''open'' and sparse, and generally consisted of a large canvas upon whose single color an ''incomplete'' rectangle was sketched in black.

If the ''Open'' series was startling, his slightly later ''Plato's Cave'' series seemed more familiar, for these paintings tended to find their identities most successfully through a great deal of black and gray pierced and punctuated by lighter tones and pure whites. These were often melancholoy in mood, and yet they are the Motherwells that seem to hold the deepest attraction for the artists of the younger generation.

One of his special qualities has been his versatility. Over the years he has been an excellent and prolific printmaker, a typographical designer, a writer, lecturer, and teacher. But most of all, he has been a stimulating presence, a forceful and articulate voice trusted to comment intelligently and clearly upon whatever issues seemed crucial or disturbing.

Because of the art world's respect for him, it is particularly unfortunate that he should be especially singled out for criticism by those who insist that art must be ''realistic'' and show evidence of unusual professional ''skill.'' To these individuals, Motherwell's simplicity and directness, his ''splashiness'' and ''childishness'' of execution, are a direct affront -- and are evidence of non-art at best and quackery and chicanery at worst.

What these generally well-meaning but misinformed critics don't realize is that Motherwell's simplicity and directness are not evidence of pictorial fraud but are, rather, the outward manifestation of an artist who has dedicated his life to probing as deeply and ruthlessly as possible into the critical and crucial issues of our culture and our time.

If his art doesn't amuse, entertain, sentimentalize, embellish, or rationalize, it is not because he is incapable of creating such art but because he refuses to do so.

It must be remembered that the best artists of Motherwell's generation were iconoclasts as well as creators. They both cut down old idols and planted the seeds for a renewed modernist tradition. Motherwell, by virtue of his particular type of critical intelligence, was one of the most iconoclastic of them all.

The fascinating thing about Motherwell in this context is the directness and boldness of his attack. He confronted the cultural complexities and ambiguities of our age much as Alexander the Great confronted the Gordian Knot: with impatience, determination, and with a blade of steel -- only, in Motherwell's case, this happened to be a sharply honed talent, with intelligence and sensibility to match.In addition, he has never wavered in his insistence that his art remain unencumbered by idle or decorative distractions or evasions. In a world full of pictorial wringing-of-hands and pictorial pleasantries, he has sought out the irreducible, the crucial, and the most dynamic. He is one of the very small handful of artists alive today who can record the heartbeat and the tremors of our age and time -- and can convince us totally (if we but give him a chance) that his insights and ''recordings'' are correct and true.

The secret of Motherwell's art is its absolute authenticity, its dead-on-target quality. When I look back over thirty years of viewing his art, I can say that he never ''lied,'' never moved away from that narrow path between order and chaos, form and formlessness, which he made his very own in the early 1940s. I know, when I look at a Motherwell, that it speaks the truth, that it reflects an authentic vision of existence and reality. And that it cannot be ignored.

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