The many masks of modern art

I'm fascinated by the fact that young artists today perceive the creation of art differently than we did during my student days. It makes talking to them about their art both a challenge and a revelation, and gives me a continuing opportunity to see how certain ideas, forms, and values have evolved, progressed (or regressed), or merely changed over the past few decades.

Most intriguing to talk to are those younger artists who take modernism for granted, for whom it is as natural a part of their lives as eating and sleeping. Not for them the often agonizing conflicts between the ''old'' and the ''new,'' the ridicule that came for painting ''modern art,'' nor the sense of alienation from friends and relatives with no perception of what one was trying to do - all things that the older generation had to put up with. These younger artists are the inheritors. They belong, and they feel quite secure in their creative premises, their conclusions, and most particularly, in the direction art is taking.

Even their perception of recent art history is quite different. For them, Cezanne occupies much the same art-historical position Giotto occupied for me when I was their age, and the art critical writings of Clement Greenberg have much the same aura of near-sanctity that the words of Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian had for me. To them, Picasso and Pollock are revered old masters, while to me the former was an awe-inspiring older contemporary and the latter a revolutionary tearing up the artistic countryside. The young view Morris Louis, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns with the same awe I brought to Mondrian, Klee, and Miro; they see Alice Neel and Philip Pearlstein much as I saw Raphael Soyer and Ivan Albright.

But these differences only reflect a shift in historical perspective, they do not indicate a serious shift in creative values and attitudes. And indeed, those have pretty much remained the same - even taking into account the effects social change, war, and political upheavals can, over a forty-year period, have upon art. Except for a few brilliant but isolated individual exceptions, we still have not moved out of the post-war era as far as art is concerned. We are, as a matter of fact, still coasting on the shove given to art by the generation of the Abstract Expressionists.

Where we do differ somewhat today from the 1945-50 period is in the assumptions we make about art, and in the ideas and creative attitudes we take for granted.

Today it is pretty much assumed that twentieth century modernism has not only been a remarkable arena for talent and new ideas, but that what it has produced so far should be freely available to anyone who needs it. Thus, a young painter today will draw from modernism as though he were drawing money from a trust account: so much late Matisse, a litle Delaunay, a large chunk of Miro, six portions of Stella, a tiny bit of Olitski, and some loose change in the form of Cornell.

It's extraordinary how well this eclecticism works. But then, I've never seen a brighter and better-focused group of younger artists than those who today are leaving the art schools and entering the professional art field. Not only are they remarkably aware of what has happened in art during this century, but many are highly skilled in more than one discipline, and can turn from painting to sculpture and then to printmaking - or possibly even to video-art - with an ease and a dexterity that is often difficult to believe.

But even more unbelievable for anyone who remembers the fierce battles waged between the ''traditional'' and the ''modern'' during the late 1940s and 1950s is the ease and casualness with which these youthful artists can put together a personal style out of bits and pieces of a variety of styles - styles that until recently were at each other's throats. Thus, aspects of Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism may find themselves peacefully coexisting with qualities lifted from Mondrian, Bacon, and Hopper. And over all there may be a delicate aroma of Pop-Art intermingled with a few pungent whiffs of the ''new'' Neo-Expressionism.

However remarkable some of the resulting art may be, it doesn't really rise above the sort of clever gamesmanship practiced by the Italian Mannerists of the sixteenth century, who made a sport out of ''quoting'' bits of the works and styles of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, in their canvases. Stunning as the results may be, what the viewer takes with him, in the final analysis, is not so much a sense of art as a sense of the artist's wit, brilliance, and cleverness.

Fortunately, our artistic future is not dependent upon such eclecticism. It is, instead, standing increasingly upon the shoulders of two groups of artists: those who have thoroughly studied modernism's premises and precepts, and have decided to turn away forever in favor of an art predicated upon the appearance of physical reality filtered through a selective application of historical modes of expression - and those who have, after an equally thorough study of modernism's premises and precepts, decided to accept them as the bedrock of their own art.

Neither, to date, has produced anything profoundly original or startling, but both offer great promise of sustained quality and some form of tradition in a period increasingly subject to the extremes of sensationalism and bloodless representationalism. Both seem to be predicated on the notion that art, whatever its style or form, must come clearly and directly from human experience and spirit, and not from museums full of past glories. And they both reflect the perception that a work of art is neither a robot nor a Frankenstein monster mechanically assembled (or put together out of bits of living tissue) but is as alive and vibrant, and has as much clear identity as any other living thing.Both , I believe, will produce a solid and respectable body of work. The ''realists'' will hopefully give that life-emptied form of art something of the human texture and vitality it has recently lost. And those for whom modernism is the basic premise of today's art, will hopefully lift it above the levels of mere sensationalism and fragmented ''inventiveness'' into which it has so often fallen of late.

One particularly fertile area of modernist-derived creative probing that is extremely sense-oriented, but which has already risen considerably above mere sensationalism, is the form of art that deals primarily with light.

James Turrell is a past master here. He uses actual light - fluorescent, tungsten, and daylight in various combinations - in a variety of ways, but his greatest popular success has come from installations that dramatically trap the viewer into ''seeing'' things that are not there, and causing him to assume that small rooms are actually flat walls, and niches and angled spaces are merely areas of light. Works that deal, in other words, with the illusory nature of perception.

These illusions are truly jolting, and haunt one long after the intitial experience, for they raise complex and far-reaching questions about how we see and how we come to conclusions (sometimes very serious and important ones) on the basis of perceptual experiences that may or may not be actual illusions.

They are not, however, exclusively consciousness-raising (to borrow a phrase from the 1970s), but are also extremely stimulating and even great fun. Shortly before the ending of Turrell's 1980 Whitney Museum exhibition, I asked two of the museum guards how the public had responded to the show. Their reponse was that almost everyone who had seen it had been entranced by it.

I don't doubt that for a moment. Imagine stepping off a museum elevator into a darkened room gently pulsating with subdued yet glowing light that suspends all the usual ways of seeing and responding to one's environment. And then imagine walking toward a huge, shimmeringly colored solid rectangle, touching it , and discovering that it is not there, that it is actually a space, a small room beyond what had appeared as solid mass.

It takes a few seconds to make and to accept the adjustment, but once it is made, one is left with a sense of exhilaration not unlike the feeling one gets from an important insight. It is quite an experience, and one I resisted at first because I suspected it was merely the result of clever gimmickry. Well, several return visits to the show convinced me that it was indeed clever, but that it was not gimmickry. That it was, as a matter of fact, an open door into a kind of art our children and grandchildren will probably take as much for granted as we now take for granted what the Abstract Expressionists gave us many decades ago.

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