The many masks of modern art

Significant creative growth is neither the goal nor the achievement of every artist. Altogether too many so-called creative individuals are essentially the same at sixty as they were at twenty. They may have mellowed a bit and be able to express themselves a little more clearly through their work, but the quality, depth, and range of their art remain pretty much as they were during art school and early career days.

This lack of growth has less to do with talent than with attitude and imagination. It often results from the notion that art is more the perfection and application of skills than it is the symbolic recapitulation of insights into the quality and nature of life, more the working out of technical and formal problems than the resolution of perceptual or philosophical inconsistencies and ambiguities.

Growth in art implies movement, change, the leaving behind of earlier and ''lesser'' stages of understanding and actualization. It suggests a struggling or a groping toward a goal - be it clearly or dimly perceived. But most of all it reflects the most fundamental and imperative aspects of life: its dynamism, openness - and its unlimited fecundity.

Growth is easiest within a healthy and clearly defined tradition. Such a tradition not only helps the artist discover his creative identity rapidly and with precision, it also presents him with specific goals, and with the basic physical and symbolic tools necessary to achieve them. Given such a tradition, and equipped with the necessary genius or talent, an artist can evolve and grow to the point where he represents the high point of that tradition. Or, on a few rare occasions, he can become its actual flowering, its ''fruit.''

Today's artist, however, has no such tradition. At best he may have the example of an older artist whose style answers most of his own needs, or be the heir to a shaky kind of ''mini-tradition'' that permits two or three generations of painters to shape their art according to the precepts of one or two powerful figures.

Even Picasso, certainly one of the outstanding genuises of all time, had no tradition greater than himself upon which to graft his art. And, as a result, he spent his incredible lifetime endlessly reasserting the truth of his insights in one newly invented form after another.

The question is: Did Picasso grow? Or did he merely change over and over again? I would say that, after 1925, he changed more than he grew - but I must add that I think it was through no fault of his own. If, in a way, he then resembled the proverbial bull-in-a-china-closet, smashing everything in sight, it was not because he wanted it that way, but because his genius found nothing in our culture capable of providing him with the artistic structure, focus, or momentum required to achieve the sort of grandeur reached by Giotto, Masaccio, Michelangelo, or Cezanne.

Someday I hope that a truly thorough exhibition will be attempted in which the outstanding works of the greatest geniuses of the past five hundred years will be displayed together. And if that is impossible, I would like to see a two-man exhibition of Michelangelo and Picasso.

Both were giants of the first order. But where Michelangelo fulfilled himself in and through a living tradition - became, in fact, one of its crowning glories - Picasso flailed and floundered about like a whale out of water. Michelangelo challenged gods and giants and won. Picasso, with all the tools of greatness at hand, found nothing great enough outside himself to engage or challenge, and so spent the last fifty years of his life challenging himself. ''Guernica,'' important and magnificent as it is in many ways, is only a twisted, frustrated, cartoonlike indication and promise of what he could have achieved had he been truly engaged culturally.

Picasso taught us all a lesson: lower your sights, for the Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque notions of artistic greatness apparently no longer apply. Only the Abstract Expressionists disagreed, and they were ill-equipped to prove art history wrong. Their heroic stance, and total dedication to a monumental ideal, led nowhere - except to the absurdities of Pop Art and other recent ''artistic'' endeavors.There have, however, been a few contemporary artists who held to the concept of greatness - often in human as well as in formal terms - and who sought it out. Among these have been Mondrian, Rouault, Matisse, Morandi, Kollwitz, Klee - to name only those that immediately spring to mind. And, in our own day, among a handful of others, Richard Diebenkorn.I saw my first Diebenkorn painting in a regional exhibition in San Francisco in 1952. There must have been a good hundred or so jury-selected paintings on view, all of them accomplished in one way or another. Diebenkorn's painting, however, stood out like a pine tree among willows. Not because it was unusual in any external way, but because it was so formally and technically intact - obviously painted by someone who was, heart and soul, a painter.It just simply was a painting, the way a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock - something that is true of far fewer works on canvas than we like to admit. Most pictures are mechanical and relatively lifeless ''robots,'' serving out their temporary terms of effectiveness on borrowed ideas and forms. Only rarely do we come across someone who is a painter, whose work exists with an identity and a reality - a life - of its own, whose earliest attempts at painting, while they may look like mere daubs, yet declare to the world that pure gold will be mined from this artist once he realizes his potential.Diebenkorn is such a painter. It was obvious when he was a very young man, and it is obvious now that he is a painter of increasing world stature. The wonderful and remarkable thing about him, however, is that he has never rested on his laurels, has never merely allowed his talent to enjoy itself, or to reap its little harvests as so many painters of talent have done. But he has placed his abilities and his insights into continuing dialogue with our culture and our times, and has constantly grown as an artist as a result.Following his career these past thirty years has been very much like reading a fascinating novel - with every yearly exhibit a new ''chapter'' to be ''read'' and savored. Even when he occasionally seemed on the edge of disaster, most particularly during his figurative period of the late 1950s and early 1960s , I always knew he would somehow emerge with flying colors, and with paintings that were even finer than any he had done before.That he has done so is now part of recent American art history. The works in his ''Ocean Park Series,'' a series of generally very large, muted, and geometric canvases, are among the most beautiful (no other word will do) paintings executed since World War II. They are also among the most significant, for they both sum up and transcend a great deal of what has gone on in 20th-century modernism.He has now entered a new phase, and is both groping toward and realizing new dimensions of painterly reality. He risked a great deal by doing so, because, to an extent, it meant beginning over again, shifting direction and focus and leaving behind the extraordinary levels of artistic and financial success he had achieved.His most recent exhibition, which included ''Untitled No. 33, 1981,'' was a remarkable demonstration of both creative imagination and intellectual persistence, a sort of advanced artistic seminar in which all who attended participated to the degree of their understanding of the ongoing 20th-century modernist debate. It was also the occasion for viewing some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful, if still somewhat tentative, painterly statements made in recent years.But most of all it was a celebration for a man with a talent who has continued to grow. And who has done so without a longstanding tradition to support or direct him. Who has carved a path and has followed it because he sensed, because he knew, that something more lay ahead.

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