The many masks of modern art

Art is seldom what it seems. The paintings of Vermeer, for instance, appear at first glance to be merely simple and straightforward depictions of subtly lit interiors in which one or two people are going about their ordinary, everyday business. We understand immediately that the dignified matron in the blue jacket is reading a letter, that the young woman bent over a table is making lace, and that the servant girl is pouring milk from a pitcher. And because all that seems obvious enough, we assume that we get the point of each painting, and understand well enough what Vermeer was trying to do.

Actually, such a reading of Vermeer's art is as incomplete, and thus as inaccurate, as defining a bird as a creature that can walk, and a tree as something that exists partly underground.

Just so with Vermeer. The matron reading the letter and the servant pouring milk are only the surface features of his art. What these works are actually about includes complex and highly sophisticated formal and technical matters, profound levels of awareness of life, quality, form, and significance, and an awesome ability to translate the artist's sense of the actuality of his existence into paint.

Vermeer's art, in other words, is the distillation and projection of a great 17th-century Dutch artist's experiencem of life into a pictorial form. Because he is great, his art is capable of reactivating much of the actuality of that experience for others -- regardless of how removed in time they are. Consequently, the particular person or object depicted serves mainly as a subtle convenience, as a point of identification for the viewer, in the complex process of bridging time and space.

And much the same applies to other ''obvious'' art -- from Raphael to Rubens, from Monet to Hopper. What our eyes see is only the merest fraction of what a painting is all about. And so our first obligation is to look behind and underneath the obvious, to try to make contact with the substance of what lies in the work before us. Only if we do so will we be fully able to receive what the artist has to give.

This probing process varies from artist to artist and between styles. A large figure of an Egyptian Pharaoh obviously conveys something very different from a large Henry Moore bronze. And a Rembrandt painting of a man will ''say'' something very unlike the quality transmitted by a Van Dyck.

On the other hand, Vermeer and Mondrian are much closer in spirit than their dramatically different styles would indicate. As indeed are Poussin and Cezanne, Rubens and Pollock, Blake and Klee.

Art, in other words, is an enigma, a paradox, even at times an outright evasion. It is multifaceted and multidimensional, and can, at one and the same time, be one particular artist's most private and individual confession -- and Everyman's universal statement of truth.

This is particularly true of 20th-century art, which seems, at times, to take a rather perverse delight in playing tricks with questions of intent and meaning. It would be a serious mistake, for instance, to confuse Cubism (especially its analytic phase) with Constructivism. Both are geometric and flat , but only Constructivism is about the relationship of geometric forms upon and within a flat surface. Cubism, predicated as it was upon a new perception of space and time, is really about the translation of what we both see and what we know of an object in space and time into two-dimensional geometric forms.

Similarly, the stark and uncompromisingly painted heads of Lucian Freud and Chuck Close, while superficially very much alike, actually represent widely divergent points of view. Freud, being a realist and a humanist, tells us in very precise terms what his models look like and how they function as human beings. Close, on the other hand, being more concerned with startling pictorial effectiveness and certain issues of modernism, chooses his models more for their pictorial effect, their blatant ''ordinariness,'' than for their humanity or character.

We mustn't be fooled by a painting's appearance. There are ''abstract'' painters such as Mondrian and Rothko who are profoundly concerned with human and spiritual values, and ''realistic'' painters for whom human models are nothing more than interesting shapes, an excuse for showing off technical skills or a device for startling the viewer into closer attention.

A contemporary painter who is frequently misunderstood within this context is Robert Motherwell. His stark and blunt images, which, to the unsophisticated eye , are nothing but wild splashes of black paint, actually bypass all notions of art as skill, pleasantry, or entertainment, and zero in on the pictorially irreducible and crucial. Translated into boxing terms, Motherwell is a heavyweight who climbs into the ring, waits for the bell, and then delivers one -- and only one -- knockout punch. There is no display of ''skill,'' no clever footwork, no brilliant boxing, and no prolonged sense of drama. There is only the one punch, swift and final, and yet it is fully sufficient to convey Motherwell's sense of quality and life.

Another contemporary artist who expressed himself as bluntly as a sledgehammer was Philip Guston. At least that was the case with his late paintings, those huge, hulking, cartoonlike images of hooded figures, shoes, feet, legs of all sizes, ladders, bricks, pointing hands, that set the art world on its ear when first publicly exhibited in 1970. What disturbed all but a few members of the art community at that time was the fact that Guston had turned his back on the subtle and lovely abstractions he had been painting for almost two decades -- as indeed he had turned his back on his earlier figurative work to become an Abstract-Expressionist.

And yet, as a creator, Guston had no choice but to move forward to complete the full cycle of his art -- regardless of what others might think.

That he was right was made blindingly clear in a recent exhibition of small painted and drawn works on paper and board completed by him in 1980, the year of his death. These were extremely simple, and consisted of one or more objects centered in the composition, and executed in the rough, blunt style for which he had recently become famous.

His subjects included a pile of red cherries, an old-fashioned iron, a teakettle, a sandwich, and a compacted head with a huge eye, as well as various clusters of shoes, nails, scrolls, poles, short ladders, mugs, and bottles.

I say these were his subjects, but actually they weren't -- any more than the matron and the servant girl were the real subjects of Vermeer's paintings. No, Guston's true subject was himself. These late works are profoundly autobiographical, for they are both symbolic ''substitutes'' for himself and very precise indications of what lay deep within him.

They are like letters between very old and close friends, only in this case the communication was between Guston the artist and Guston the man. The everyday working closeness of these two sides of his identity precluded any need for complex imagery or flowery formal language. All that was needed was simple and direct communication.

There is a wonderful sense of fulfillment about these works, a powerful feeling that he had come ''full circle'' as a human being and as an artist -- and that he was now finally ''home.'' He was now as fully Philip Guston, man and artist, as a rich, red apple is an apple or a soft, juicy peach is a peach.

There are those who feel the need to interpret the ''subjects'' of these late paintings and drawings, to ferret out precisely what a shoe, a pile of cherries, a teakettle, or a cluster of odds and ends represented to him. I'm sure that's all very important for the art history books, but it wasn't for me while viewing these works. What came across loud and clear, and gave me the deepest and rarest sort of satisfaction, was a sense of Guston the man and Guston the artist. All else seemed very much beside the point.

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