Is modernism dead? No -- but maybe too ingrown

I'd like to explain something of which the public is generally unaware, but which is very much on the minds of anyone involved with the contemporary art scene.

It has to do with why so much of this century's art appears fragmentary or simplistic to so many. And why very few artists today paint the grandly monumental pictures so common a little over a century ago.

The answer lies in the probing, almost scientifically experimental nature of modernist art - and in its never-ending search for a formal language capable of giving form to our culture's realities.

The difficulty has lain in pinpointing these realities, in defining their relationship to art, and in finding their appropriate painterly and sculptural forms. It has been a complex problem whose roots go all the way back to the art of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.

Let's picture these three estimable gentlemen getting together to discuss this issue, but managing only to come up with the broadest of answers. Time passes and they ask a few younger artists to take part in their discussion. Seurat, Lautrec, Signac, and a few others join in. And then, a bit later, Munch, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, and Matisse (to mention only a few) become regulars. Before long they are joined by some German Expressionists, Italian Futurists, and Russian Constructivists - as well as a few Dadaists, Surrealists, and Neo-Plasticists.

By the 1930s, most of Europe, and by the 1950s, most of the world, are involved. Every modernist artist worth his salt views his work as an integral part of this ever-widening modernist debate, and judges himself (and is judged by his peers), to a great extent on his ability to make a formal or conceptual contribution to it. What matters is painting something relevant to the issues first raised by Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, and then carried forward from generation to generation by the leading modernists.

It makes no sense, of course, within this context, to paint grand historical or religious allegories, or anything else even slightly at tangent to the burning modernist issues of the day.

If one of those issues should concern the relative merit of splashing paint on canvas or applying it with the aid of ruler and compass, then the aspiring modernist painter must apply himself to that question. His response might be to paint pictures in which severely geometric forms float within fields of wildly splashed paint. Or to paint in a splashier or more totally geometric fashion than anyone has before. But whatever he does, it must be done in direct response to the modernist debate at that particular time.

It's not easy. The pressure to be both relevant and original becomes increasingly great. Acrimonious squabbles over what is orthodox and what is heretical in the light of modernist ''purity'' often take precedence over more significant matters. Careers are advanced or sidetracked on the basis of conformity. A few theorists take it upon themselves to decide what is and what is not art.

The result is predictable: art that is often obscure and insular, and that can generally be fully appreciated only by those who understand modernist principles and ideals.

Small wonder then, that modernism is thought by many to be dead or dying. This discrepancy in range, depth, and quality between what the modernist masters produced between 1875 and the late 1950s is too great, they argue, to be ignored. No, modernism is dead, and that's that.

I doubt it - although modernism has certainly become somewhat narrow of late, and has not managed to convert several of our best younger artists to its cause. No, I see too many indications that it is beginning to clean its house, to rid itself of much of its dogma, and to open itself up once again to the more passionate and life-drenched aspects of human experience.

Even so, there are still a few quite fascinating artists these days whose creative identities are largely defined and validated by ''traditional'' modernist ideals. Their art continues to contribute answers to the questions first raised seriously by Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Tiny-to-small sculptures

Joel Shapiro is a perfect example of such an artist. To anyone unaware of the modernist context within which his art emerged, his exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York would be only a moderately interesting display of tiny-to-small sculptures of chunky objects and people, and a few bold abstract drawings.

But to anyone aware of the modernist forces that helped shape his work, his show is a fascinating demonstration of one man's highly imaginative dialogue with post-World War II modernist art - and, in a larger sense, with modernism itself. It is also an opportunity to see some of the most beautiful drawings being produced today.

Minimalism (art as pure form) and Conceptualism (art as pure idea) were the dominant art movements during the years Shapiro was attempting to establish his artistic identity. By the early 1970s, however, Minimalism's formal purity had become a creative prison for many of the younger artists who felt the need to counter its restrictions. Each artist rebelled in his own way - generally by allowing a representational element to return to his art - and young Shapiro was no exception.

He transformed some of the solid geometric ''abstract'' forms typical of Minimalist sculpture into recognizable objects. The result was sculpture that not only informed the viewer that the particular piece in front of him was ''a chair,'' ''a table,'' or ''a house,'' but also that it was still in many ways a piece of ''pure'' three-dimensional form.

That would have been a juggling act of no particular significance if Shapiro hadn't then taken the matter a few steps further by insisting that his objects be as unornamented and compact as possible - and that they be only a few inches in height. By this simple act of reducing the solid form of a chair or a house to an object only a few inches high - and by then placing it within a large, empty floor area - Shapiro acomplished two things: He made the Minimalist conception of form more intimate, and he created a new way of perceiving familiar things.

It's quite an experience walking into the large galleries of the Whitney Museum and seeing Shapiro's tiny sculptures holding their own in the midst of yards of floor space. Each object seems like the compacted center of a universe that expands in all directions, and into which we move like giants. There is absolutely nothing cute or charming about these tiny objects, however, for they are as solid and as ''tough'' as nails.

But then, that strength is largely what they are about. After all, this is an art in dynamic dialogue with modernist concepts of form, and not an art merely depicting things we recognize as houses, chairs, or tables.

Of course there is more to Shapiro's art than that. The human form, for instance, has become an important subject for him of late. And then there are the colored pieces, and the various magnificent drawings. All of them make a point, and do it well.

It's quite a show. After its closing at the Whitney on Jan. 2, it travels to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (March-May 1983); the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (Aug. 13-Sept. 25); and the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, California (Jan. 10-March 4, 1984).

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