The many masks of modern art

I would like to ask my readers to try to enter the mind and sensibilities of a particular kind of artist. The kind who sees his or her art as an extension, as a probe into the still unknown, and the as-yet-not-formed.

For this kind of artist, nothing matters quite so much as giving form to intuitions and intimations of realities that are still tentative and unperceived , still only in the realm of possibility. To such an artist, art is an opening up to dimensions beyond preconceptions and prejudices, beyond what has already been created or is being created by others. It is being alert to an almost infinite number of creative alternatives, and being willing to examine patiently every nuance and facet of whatever ideas or forms present themselves as artistic possibilities.

It means putting everything that one is and believes into the creative act. It means being so alert, sensitive, and ''vulnerable'' to paper, canvas, clay, so capable of totally identifying with daubs or smudges of paint, ink, charcoal - or whatever - that one actually ''becomes'' and ''is'' those things during the creative act.

And finally, it means ''erasing'' all extraordinary technical skills acquired over the years - and simply and quietly letting what will happen, happen.

This is not, however, as easy or as passive a process as it sounds. The kind of waiting and ''letting happen'' to which I'm referring here is an incredibly focused activity. In order for what ''happens'' to become art of any significance, it must present itself pretty much as any other kind of idea or truth presents itself for the first time. It must come in response to a need, and must address itself to existing and emerging cultural realities, ideals, issues, hopes, dreams - or anything else that is crucially and profoundly a part of man or of his world.

Such an artist knows all this, of course - and probably knows it much better than anyone else. He knows he must wait, ''listen,'' and be patient, and resist any and all temptations to produce something gimmicky or clever, or that echoes something seen in a colleague's studio, or in a gallery show.

This is the difficult part, and the part least understood by those who see art as little more than a skillful rendering of physical reality, or as the putting together of beautiful or interesting shapes and colors. If anything, at such a moment, and for such an artist, anything already existing, beautiful, or known, is precisely what must be guarded against. What is sought is a clearer, more inclusive, or more sensitive accounting or distillation of the elusive realities the artist senses but cannot quite see. What is not wanted is a handsome rearrangement of already beautiful or ''significant'' forms, shapes, or colors.

In order to do this, the artist must break through the cliches, stereotypes, and oversimplifications that have accrued over the years, and that have partially or totally blocked his and our perception of what lies behind and beneath the facade of art. Art that is already acknowledged to be significant or beautiful will too often draw attention more to itself than to what it represents - or to what called it into being. The artist's primary responsibility, therefore, is to try to reach out beyond what has already been done, and to get as close as he can to the substance, the raw material, of life and of art. He must not, however, reach out to enclose it as art until he feels at least fairly certain that what he has ''caught'' is also of some value and significance to the rest of us.

Now, in this the artist is not unlike the scientist or the inventor, except, of course, that he generally has an even harder time than they proving the validity or worth of what he has ''discovered.'' None of us would claim, for instance, that the atomic bomb and the computer don't really exist because we disapprove of the one and cannot understand the other. And yet that is pretty much the way many of us look at some of the most important and beautiful art of this century. We disapprove of it or don't understand it, and so, for us, it doesn't really exist as art.

Viewing a new kind of art after it has emerged from formlessness can be a perplexing and disturbing experience. By its very nature, it challenges at least something the viewer has considered true about art, and may, in fact, attack the crucial premises upon which he built his entire philosophy of art.

It can also be a perplexing experience for the artist who created it, for without precedents, how does he know that what he has produced has any value, or even any identity, as art? Without anything to compare it to, how can he tell if it is any good?

These and other questions like them beset and distract such an artist, especially if he is particularly innovative and original, and has no one else to advise him. To survive as an artist at all he must have extraordinary determination, as well as great faith and trust in his intuitions, perceptions, and judgments.

This is especially true at those moments when he has totally exhausted all available images and forms, and must forage into unknown territory for new ones. Whether this ''foraging'' is done logically (Mondrian), impulsively (Pollock), or with a combination of both logic and impulse (Klee), the artist is absolutely on his own. And his entire identity at that moment lies in the point of his brush, in the way a red smashes into a yellow, and then ricochets off toward an acid green, or in the way a rusty nail pokes through a piece of very old wood to balance a circle of tin painted a rich, deep brown.

No artist of the past two decades has been a better ''forager'' into the unknown than Eva Hesse. Within a few short years (she died in 1970 at the age of thirty-four), she produced a number of startlingly provocative and enigmatic images and forms that not only helped shape the advanced art of the 1960s and very early 1970s, but also opened up numerous formal and thematic possibilities for any number of younger artists. She was a fascinating artist in her own right , and one of the major sources for some of the liveliest and most interesting art being produced today.

Eva Hesse was only three when she and her family fled Nazi Germany for New York in 1939. By her mid-teens she had decided to become an artist, and devoted the next few years to studying art, first at the Art Students League, then Cooper Union, and finally at Yale where she studied with Josef Albers.

Her work moved from a moderate form of Abstract Expressionism, to drawings and loosely-brushed small paintings of exotic and occasionally whimsical subjects, and then gradually to a preoccupation with three-dimensional forms and themes. Drawing remained a constant, however, and some of her best pieces are drawings that echo and parallel her major sculptural achievements.

In creating the latter, Hesse expanded the definition of sculpture to include qualities previously held to be ''un'' and even ''anti'' sculptural. In place of solid, well-defined forms, or wire pieces that followed a kind of taut, structural logic (Calder), Hesse substituted forms that hung limply, drooped, became entangled within themselves, turned into little boxes full of strange things, wandered up or down a wall and along the floor, or looked like so many clusters of roots dangling from the ceiling.

In short, in a period when sculpture was increasingly becoming more geometric , severe, and ''hard,'' Hesse introduced a kind of sculpture that looked as though its backbone had been removed, and that was remarkably un-geometric, ''relaxed,'' and ''soft.''

These qualities have by now become central to the work of many younger artists, as indeed have the various themes and devices she introduced to the art world through her drawings and gouaches. Her art exists, as a matter of fact, as a major precedent for the work of some of the brightest and most promising painters and sculptors working today. Her influence may be subtle and often nonspecific, but it is deeply and warmly acknowledged nevertheless.

Even more important, however than her stylistic influence, is her example as an artist probing into uncharted territory. In this, her qualities of imagination and integrity remain unmatched. She was an extraordinarily sensitive medium who transmitted a great deal of information from regions where others preferred not to go. And, in the process, she helped open many doors and windows for younger artists, especially women.

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