The many masks of modern art

Awakening to art can be a slow and subtle process, or it can come as a severe and sudden jolt. It can be as simple as noticing the lines of a vase or the nuances of a painting for the first time. Or as complex and confusing as being suddenly overwhelmed by a work that had previously failed to affect us.

Whatever form this awakening takes, however, there are three things about it that are certain: it is permanent, it penetrates, and it grows. Once art ''strikes,'' there isn't very much we can do about it short of moving to a desert island or isolating ourselves in a mountain wilderness.

If we aren't careful, art can invade and dominate our lives forever - as it has mine. I cannot imagine what my life would be like without art, especially since I was only a young boy when I fell under its spell. It took only a few hours poring over a book of Rembrandt etchings to change me forever. And when I consider how many other, hardly less dramatic ''aftershocks'' art has administered to me over the years, I'm left with absolutely no comprehension of who and what I'd be today without it.

Art can reach out and touch us on many levels. I responded to Rembrandt the way a sponge responds to water because, as a boy, I needed proof that certain deeply felt but still unformed realities and dimensions within me weren't unique and peculiar to me - and so suspect, and possibly even ''bad.'' Rembrandt gave me the assurance that what I felt deep inside me was universal, and a dynamic part of human life. And because he did, he became my friend for life.

Not all experiences with art, however, need be that deeply and personally significant. Art can be deliciously lighthearted and full of fun as well, or deal exclusively with perfection of line, color, or form. It can be grandly monumental (Michelangelo) or wonderfully frisky (Calder) - or any nuance or dimension of human reality in between. But whatever form it takes, it demands one thing from us if we are to benefit from its special qualities. And that is a willingness to respond to it with an open mind and spirit.

To some, art is limited to the familiar, to things loved or experienced in the past, to feelings of comfort, coziness, or security. For them art consists of recognition, of being reminded of pleasant childhood dreams, of beautiful landscapes, loved ones, or religious personages or ideals - and in forms that pictorially reflect these experiences romantically or sentimentally.

The issue of artistic quality is frequently quite foreign to these individuals. And if it is, then very little distinction is made in their homes between junk and art, between a horrible, sugary painting of a ''beautiful'' sunset and an excellent museum reproduction of Durer's Young Hare.

The crucial factor in waking up to art is first to awaken more fully to life, to gain a deeper insight into, and a greater sensitivity for, the value, nature, quality, and purpose of all living things. With that as a start, and with an open and loving eye for every type and form of art, it is altogether possible that what seemed nondescript and dull before will gradually (or even suddenly) appear to be full of grace, interest, charm, and beauty. And art itself will become a dynamic challenge instead of merely a passive form of sentimental remembrance, or of something ''pretty'' to hang on the wall.

One particular work of art that I suspect did as much as any in recent years to alert otherwise indifferent viewers to the potentials of art is Richard Lippold's wire-sculpture Variations Within a Sphere, No. 10; The Sun. Or at least that was true during the years it was on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

It is an extremely delicate and fragile work constructed of fine gold wire that crosses and crisscrosses a space eleven feet high, twenty-two feet wide, and several feet deep to form a shimmering and glittering circular image representing the sun. This was exhibited in semi-darkness against a black backdrop, and was continually bathed in light.

It was pure enchantment. Almost everyone fell under its spell, not only because it seemed so magical and so genuinely of and about light and the sun, but also because it appeared on the scene at precisely the right moment (1956) to intrigue a public becoming somewhat jaded by Abstract Expressionism's painterly explosions. I never once passed it without encountering at least a dozen individuals studying it or commenting upon it. Before long it even became a popular place to meet old friends or make new ones - or to hear some of the most outrageous explanations of ''modern art'' (usually made by a father to his children) to be heard anywhere.

But even if they were outrageous, they were serious and honest attempts to understand something new and strange. There was a curiosity about why something so abstract could be so totally enchanting and beautiful. Some of that must be attributed to its glitteringly exquisite strands of gold wire sparkling in the light and appearing to all the world like a huge piece of intricate gold jewelry.

But there was more to it than that. And what that was really had to do with the ideals and the qualities of art, and with the ability certain works have to charm and to invite serious attention.

For one thing, people with no real previous experience with modernist art ''trusted'' this piece because it was so exquisitely and lovingly crafted. It looked, in other words, like a serious attempt on someone's part to shape and express an idea - and not like something casually tossed off by a child and then exhibited in order to pull the wool over the public's eyes. Anyone taking it seriously would not, as a result, be in danger of being proved a fool for having liked it.

For another thing, it projected a powerfully radiant and lyrical quality that seemed almost mystical in effect; it moved viewers to respond warmly and sympathetically toward it. This quality, this luminosity, had the added effect of stirring deep emotions, and of remaining deeply and lovingly embedded in the viewer's memory long after his last actual encounter with it.

And finally, it was so clearly and logically constructed that its ''magical'' effects could be analyzed and understood by anyone the least bit interested in doing so. Quite a few viewers, as a matter of fact, seemed satisfied with its legitimacy only after they had checked out its key wires, saw where and how they were anchored, and grasped the logic behind their crucial intersections. Only then were they able to relax, fold their arms, and beam confidently and approvingly at the shimmering structure before them.

All that, I realize, may not sound like the most profound recommendations for a work of art. And I must admit that the first and third are somewhat suspect. And yet they served their purpose if they permitted a few viewers to relax and to become open enough to allow the work's aesthetic resonances to penetrate their consciousness, or even to activate their sensibilities. The road to the appreciation of art isn't always grand and spectacular. It is often very simple and everyday, and made up of otherwise quite insignificant things such as common sense, craftsmanship, logic, and physical attractiveness.

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