The many masks of modern art

In order to grasp the underlying realities of 20th-century modernism, we must understand that it stemmed to a large degree from a perception of our age which saw it as both advancing toward hitherto unimagined wonders, and tottering on the edge of chaos and annihilation. And it also represented a cultural attitude that hovers at mid-point between optimism and despair.

Modernism, as a result, has consisted largely of a series of high wire acts performed with varying degrees of success by every artist of the modernist persuasion. From Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Munch, to Picasso and Pollock, to the most passionately committed modernist artist of today, one of the most crucial issues has been how to maintain a state of balance and equilibrium between the extremes of optimism and despair, order and chaos, form and formlessness -- and to do so regardless of how dangerously like walking along a razor's edge the maintenance of that balance might be.

Just as it is true that even the most spectacular high wire act has little meaning without an awareness of the damage a fall from a great height can do, so is it true that the full accomplishments of our recent artistic heroes remain dim and obscure without a full awareness of this century's peculiar and extraordinary social and cultural pressures.

The demands upon these ''heroes'' has been great and precise. The primary prerequisites for any modernist artist worthy of that title has been that he remain ''upright'' and that he ''walk'' on that high wire. If he managed that, and even if, like Malevich and Arp, he did little or nothing else, he was accorded critical recognition. Unfortunately, however, his accomplishment was generally only understood by his peers and a few critics, dealers, and collectors. To most of his contemporaries, the art he produced with such difficulty and at such risk was generally seen as nothing more than an oddly shaped piece of marble, a paint-dribbled canvas, or a few pieces of wire and tin that moved in the wind.

Only those artists whose works were, at least to a degree, also light-hearted , delightfully colorful, witty, warmly suggestive, dramatic, or deeply moving were accorded popularity as well as critical approval. High on the list of artists who fulfilled these requirements were Miro, Klee, Matisse, Chagall, Calder, and Picasso. They quickly became the early modernist darlings, and because they were excellent artists as well as ''entertaining'' and moving, they did as much as anyone to whittle away the general prejudice against the modernist position.

This high wire juggling act, however, has remained at the heart of every new generation's perception of modernism. The contextual and stylistic ingredients may have shifted a bit from decade to decade, but the central crisis and balance have remained essentially the same. Without an awareness of this finely honed and precarious balancing act, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism, Abstract-Expressionism lose some of their point and punch. And the art of Gris, Leger, Bacon, Giacometti, Gorky, Dubuffet, Stella, Diebenkorn loses a considerable portion of its dramatic impact and cultural relevance.

This high wire act has taken many forms. There have been those whose art consisted of remaining perfectly still and rigid on that high wire (Mondrian), dancing a lively jig upon it (Calder), leaping about dangerously on it (Picasso) , acting out a charade upon it (Magritte), or tiptoeing carefully along it in the dark (Reinhardt).

But there have also been those who predicated their art upon the assumption that being on that high wire was not a special and unusual event at all, but an everyday occurrence -- that it was not an isolated and rarified symbolic act but the way life really was.

For these artists, modernism was not something special; it was the very air they breathed, the very reality they lived from day to day. For them, the painting that interested them began with Cezanne and Cubism and the older masters; even someone as great as Rembrandt or as close as Turner or Monet represented a perception of life and of art as far from their own as that of the ancient Greeks or Romans.

This is not to say that they were or are unaware of what preceded Cezanne, or that they shut their eyes to the greatness of the past. Far from it. Most of them are fascinated and deeply moved by the art of previous ages, and a few have studied it deeply. What they do feel is that today's art demands a different formal emphasis, a new manner of bringing itself into existence.

These artists speak, by and large, to those members of the public for whom modernism is also an established formal and perceptual language that demands no explanation, translation, or detailed commentary, and who respond to it as simply and directly as do the devotees of any art or philosophy when the premise is assumed to be beyond question or doubt.

Among the very best of the current crop of painters whose art is thus totally defined by the modernist position, but which also exists as a dynamic extension of it, is Terence La Noue. His large, richly textured, and radiantly colorful ''abstract'' paintings are both living proof of modernism's legitimacy and fecundity as well as of its ability to engage a profoundly creative individual at his deepest, truest, and most fertile levels.

La Noue's unstretched, free-hanging, tapestrylike paintings are processed from a mold, and are then gouged, torn, incised into, and built up both before and during the actual painting. The result is a dense, rich, encrusted surface upon and into which his passionate and often molten colors float, settle, or intrude. And which is so sensuously appealing, that it calls for touching and handling as well as being looked at.

A little too much has been made of La Noue's recent utilization of the hues, patterns, textures, and mystical resonances of the art of ancient India, most particularly its temple hangings, thankas, and illustrated miniatures. While this quite conscious borrowing cannot be denied it should not be made an issue, for the heart and the ''message'' of his art is couched in strictly ''modern'' terms, and addresses itself most specifically to the textures and realities of the late 20th century.

It is at heart a Romantic vision that La Noue presents to us, a warmly sensuous and richly provocative alternative to the flat, crass, often unfeeling cultural landscape we see around us. His most recent exhibition was a passionate and evocative, even a somewhat exotic, affair whose burning colors, glittering, opulent surfaces, and hints and echoes of faraway places, left me feeling charged, engaged, and willing to do battle against everything, including demons and dragons.

But that is only one side of the coin. La Noue's ''hot'' romanticism exists in direct response and counterpoint to a profound awareness of the dark underside of human existence: of pain, despair, and fear. His high wire act represents the desperate need of the human for color, passion, dreams, yearnings , and ideals to balance the dread of nothingness. His art is a profoundly serious matter, as profoundly serious as the antics of a colorfully made-up clown performing with gay abandon on his high wire far above the crowds. We may laugh and thoroughly enjoy ourselves, but we know all the while that one tiny slip -- and it will all be over.

A major part of the magic of La Noue's art lies in the fact that all this is never directly specified in his paintings -- any more than such feelings and moods would be translated into music. They are only alluded to and are subtly projected through colors, textures, forms, relationships, resonances -- much as music projects the ''content'' and the qualities of what it wants to convey.

I only wish that his paintings could reproduce well in black-and-white, but they don't. Their extraordinarily dense surfaces and their wonderfuly rich color really only come across in the original. It is there that the viewer can totally absorb himself in La Noue's profoundly subtle recapitulations and projections of the tone and texture of life and, most particularly, in the resonances of his vision of human reality -- and experience an art that is both rich and true.

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