Artistic genius - do we know it when we see it?

There is nothing more fascinating than artistic genius. Nor more difficult to pin down.

It is also extremely rare - despite what we may read in our art journals and art books, where cleverness is frequently mistaken for talent, and talent for genius.

It can also be deceptive. It may appear, as in the case of Cezanne, in the simplest, ''clumsiest,'' and most ''obvious'' of forms. Or, as with Lautrec, with great charm, power, and cleverness - and with astonishing skill.

There are also times when it has come on the scene and been dismissed at first as too ''childish,'' something that has been particularly true in this century - witness Klee, Calder, and Miro.

Genius has also made itself felt as a primal force, as an explosion of energy , and as the opening up of new creative alternatives. Here, once again, it can be deceptive, for it can be brilliant and well directed (Picasso), or subterranean and ''blind,'' as with Jackson Pollock.

And finally, it can be confusing, because it is, at times, so overwhelming and powerful that its appearance in a figure like Michelangelo or Picasso can stunt rather than stimulate the creative growth of others - or, as with Pollock, trigger such a creative deadlock that those following must invent or concoct something equally ''big'' or powerful in rebuttal even if it is artificial and of little substance (in this case, Pop Art).

Artistic genius is original because it demands the fulfillment of its unique identity above all else, because it will not tolerate the loss or erosion of that identity through hesitations, imitations, half-truths, or compromises. And because it will do everything in its power to fulfill itself in the simplest and most direct manner possible.

Among other things, genius is the ability to find the shortest possible distance between impulse or insight and formal realization, the most direct route through complexities, ambiguities, and rationalizations. Alexander the Great's sword blow through the Gordian Knot was an act of genius: Lesser men before him had lost their chance at greatness by floundering about trying to untie that impossible knot.

Artistic genius has the ability to transform the cultural landscape, to alter our perception of a facet of reality or of reality itself. On a personal level, its effect can be stunning and life-altering.

I will never forget Rembrandt's effect upon me when I ''discovered'' him on my 11th birthday, nor how stunned I was upon first really encountering Cezanne's genius on a bright Sunday afternoon in a museum in Honolulu. I was 18 and not interested in any art produced after the 17th century. An hour with that Cezanne painting, however, and my life was changed forever - even though it took me a good 10 years even to begin to understand why.

The same was true with my first real encounters with the art of Picasso, Cubism, Brancusi, Mondrian, Klee, Calder, Miro, and Abstract Expressionism. In each case I knew absolutely that I was in the presence of something truly remarkable and perception-altering - even though I did not understand why. And in each case, my life was deepened and enriched as I gradually came to grips with the point and quality of that particular artist or style.

It is my opinion that art is a living force of nature activating us to experience levels of perception, intensity, wholeness, and significance our everyday lives often deny us. And that one of art's crucial functions is to awaken the spark of genius in all of us.

Genius is not so much a special and unique attribute shared by only a tiny handful of human beings as it is a perception, a sensing, an awareness of truth shared by all of us to one degree or another. (If that were not so, how is it that we recognize genius when we see or experience it?) But whereas most of us touch this intuition, this awareness, only occasionally and lightly, the artist of genius lives and burns with it, makes it the focus of his life.

Vincent van Gogh is a good case in point. The creative fire, the unyielding clarity of perception and feeling that consumed him during the last years of his life, and which he couldn't personally share with anyone else, is now something millions can share because of his art. True, what we now receive is secondhand and comes in neat little rectangles of canvas or paper, but it is the genuine article nevertheless. All it requires is that it be looked at and experienced openly and without prejudice. If that is done, and if the viewer is ripe for the experience, studying a Van Gogh painting can have the same illuminating effect upon the viewer's inner being as a pulled light switch can have upon a dark room.

Another extraordinary genius was Pablo Picasso. He may, as a matter of fact, have been the most spectacular painterly genius of all time if we judge his standing on the basis of the range and complexity of his genius rather than on what he accomplished with it. At any rate, his gifts were truly astonishing, a fact that is beautifully brought out in Josep Palau i Fabre's monumental new book, ''Picasso: The Early Years 1881-1907'' (New York: Rizzoli 1981; $175). This 560-page study of the first 26 years of Picasso's life is an overwhelming demonstration of painterly genius actualizing itself through color, line, tone, and texture. Of the book's 1,587 illustrations, 1,557 are reproductions of Picasso's works done from the time he was 9 up to his epochmaking ''Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,'' executed in 1907 when he was 26.

What comes through most emphatically is the uncanny totality and ''on target'' quality of Picasso's perception, as well as how swiftly what he saw was registered upon paper or canvas. Seeing and drawing were apparently pretty much the same thing for him right from the start. When he drew a pigeon, a landscape, a portrait, or whatever else he fancied, we sense an immediacy and an urgency about subject and style that preclude the existence of either caution or hesitancy during the creative act.

Paging through this book is an incredible and humbling experience, especially for anyone who thinks he has creative ability. From start to finish, the evidence of both perceptual and imaginative genius is overwhelming, and astonishingly varied. Sketches and studies are scattered throughout this volume which reveal facets of painterliness Picasso never pursued, and which, as a result, exist as promises to the future never kept.

Picasso's genius races through this book like a wild horse, with Picasso at first hanging on for dear life, then gradually taking command. It is difficult to reconcile the sheer vitality and pictorial inventiveness that leap out at us page after page with the rather unremarkable figure of the small and dark young man we see in various photographs - piercing black eyes notwithstanding. And yet it indeed was he through whom all this creative passion and clarity poured.

There is something inexorable about the way Picasso's genius manifested itself in work after work for roughly 80 years. It never stopped - not even as he neared and passed 90. Between 1970 and 1973, the year of his death, he painted over 350 pictures, and while some critics see these late paintings as weak parodies of earlier works, they still project more raw creative passion and force than do the paintings of anyone else alive at the time.

There is an often unresolved quality about some of these late works that leads me to suspect that Picasso had a hard time toward the end keeping his genius under control. That its ''wildness,'' like that of a bucking bronco, was a bit more than he could at that time handle and that, as a result, he was frequently ''thrown'' by it.

Now I know this runs counter to the usual theory about these late paintings - which is that they represent a gradual waning of his powers - but I cannot see them as weaker than his earlier ones. Less focused and ambitious, yes; but less powerful, no. The power and the force of his genius were still there. It leaped and pranced and was as rarin' to go as always. All that was apparently lacking was Picasso's will and ambition to remain firmly in control.

One hopes that someday someone will do a study of the relationship among artistic genius, character, and age - and of genius's insatiable drive to fulfill itself regardless of any and all obstacles - be they within the creator or within the culture. Perhaps then we will better understand such an artist as Picasso - or Michelangelo and Cezanne, for that matter - whose very late works seem both so much more simple and so much more ambiguous than the earlier ones.

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