The many masks of modern art

The dramatic emergence of talent in mid to late life has never ceased to amaze me. It can pop up anywhere. I know an excellent photographer who decided a few months ago to turn his lifelong habit of doodling to good advantage by transforming some of his doodles into a painting. The result was a stunning little picture that is by far the best ''first painting'' I have ever seen.

It took a while to convince him of how good it was, but he did finally agree that it might not be so bad after all, and is now busily engaged in producing a group of paintings that may very well launch him on a second career.

I also know an extraordinary woman, the widow of a world-famous sculptor, who started using a camera seriously for the first time three years ago -- and is now an excellent photographer whose works are in demand by museums and major galleries.

Many of us have had this experience -- at least to some degree. It can consist of nothing more dramatic than the discovery of skills we never knew we had -- or it can be as dramatic as the case of Grandma Moses, who discovered at a very advanced age that she could paint. At any rate, such experiences happen all the time, in all places, and at all ages. The only problem lies in knowing how to trust such suddenly discovered talent -- and in knowing how to use it wisely.

At such moments, good, professional guidance and support can be crucial, or the self-confidence needed to enter a new field may never develop. It is, after all, hard to gauge the quality or promise of what has so startlingly sprung into view -- especially if it happens in a field somewhat apart from our own.

We may be ecstatic about what has happened, and dearly love what has resulted from it, but know at the same time that what excites us so tremendously may be of little or no interest or value to anyone else.

The problem lies in finding someone whose opinion we can trust on both a professional and personal level. Someone, in other words, who can tell us whether our ''talent'' is real or an illusion, and who can do so with an insight into the kind of person we are, and the kind of long-range goals we have in mind.

Such individuals, unfortunately, are not so easy to find. Professional opinion is easy enough to come by, but professional opinion balanced by a sympathetic understanding of the values, family responsibilities, and career preferences of the person whose talent it is -- that's another matter entirely. I'm not by any means suggesting that sympathy in this case necessarily means advising the ''new'' artist to give up everything and henceforth devote his life exclusively to art. No indeed! That could be the worst possible sort of advice to give, regardless of how much talent is involved.

No, I mean the kind of sympathetic understanding and advice that will help the person, asking for it, to perceive his talent within the broadest possible context, and help him get a glimpse of its possible economic, personal, social, professional, even its spiritual and creative implications. An explosion of ''talent'' in mid-life, after all, can be a very confusing thing, and is not something to be accepted blindly -- at least not by most of us.

I am also intrigued by the change in direction talent will sometimes take at a younger age, most particularly during the formative years of professional training. I remember very clearly the moment an art school friend of mine made the final decision to be a sculptor rather than a painter. He was working on a portrait of me in oils, and it was, as far as I could tell, going well. Halfway through, however, he lifted the canvas off the easel and said quite simply that he was finished forever with painting. And he was -- or at least he still is, for he transferred his attentions to clay and wood, and is now a successful sculptor.

But most of all, I'm intrigued by a change of direction which moves a young artist from one kind of creative perception and expression to another, from, say , work that is tightly controlled, geometric, and coolly detached to work that is wildly impulsive, free-form, and intensely empathetic. A move, in other words , that indicates a basic alteration in creative focus, even possibly a basic change in philosophy.

Within this context, there is one younger American painter whose ''case'' particularly interests me, as much for the nature of his early switch from architecture to painting as for the extraordinary quality of what he is now producing.

I first saw Tino Zago's huge, passionate canvases two years ago. I was very impressed by his ability to work with great gobs and swirls of paint, to let them hop and prance about upon the canvas, and yet somehow to have it all add up to images that were both remarkably evocative of the Nova Scotia coastline from which they were partly drawn, and extraordinarily aware of the most sophisticated twentieth-century ''modernist'' statements. I felt I was in the presence of a fresh and powerful new talent that, while fully awake to the complex painterly traditions and problems of its time, yet dared to strike off on its own. I was most particularly impressed by the fact that he perceived nature as subject and theme within a painterly tradition that included Monet, Matisse, Hartley, and Pollock, but without undue dependency upon any of those historic figures, or the surface appearances of nature itself.

And I found it particularly fascinating that the creator of these intense and totally romantic paintings had originally started out to be an architect.

I wrote the name ''Zago'' down on a list of younger artists whose careers I especially wanted to watch, and kept my eyes open for any of his things on view. An opportunity to see more of his paintings came up a few weeks ago during his most recent exhibition. I went, and found my original impression of his work more than vindicated, and left with an even stronger feeling than before, that Zago is indeed a powerful and valuable newer talent.

I realize that a reproduction in a newspaper may look like the scrawls of a child, but will you take my word for the fact that this painting is beautiful?

His paintings function on several levels. They are extremely physical and direct, and from closeup resemble the wilder and more impulsive side of Abstract Expressionism. This impression is dispelled, however, the moment we step back a bit. At a distance of roughly ten to twelve feet, we become happily aware that those mounds, smears, and slabs of paint have been transformed into a wide expanse of water, usually a stream or river, flanked by grasses, bushes, and branches.

And yet, even that transformation is not what these paintings are all about, for Zago's art is a highly complex contrapuntal exercise in which abstraction, nature, art history, color, painterly ambiguities, and linear rhythms are dynamically orchestrated to create works of extraordinary visual, emotive, and intellectual impact.

At a time when art is often overly precious or refined, or too willfully idiosyncratic, Zago thinks and paints ''big'' -- and does it with taste and great formal tact.

''Left of Center No. 1,'' for example, is fourteen feet wide. Seen from a distance, we can marvel at the subtle manner in which a tiny area of blue has been ''nudged'' in between two darker hues, the way a narrow slash of bright yellow has been allowed to twirl its way (like a small and lively fish) among deep blues, or the way a few specks of black perfectly balance a cluster of fragile vertical lines a good ten feet away in another sector of the canvas.

This ability to be both powerfully direct and basic, and lyrically elegant, while typical of the Old Masters and of such recent masters as Monet and Matisse , is most unusual today. Our painters seem to take pride in keeping to only two or three painterly ''notes,'' or painting with a consistently heavy hand throughout their work. I cannot understand such misuse of creative potential -- any more than I can understand music composed for only two or three notes or a piano played by a pianist wearing boxing gloves.

Art, like life, is rich and varied and should be permitted its full and true voice. Tino Zago is one artist who does just that. I don't know what triggered his switch from architecture to painting, but I for one am pleased he took that step.

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