The many masks of modern art

How does a young, extremely talented artist with a passion for good, solid traditional painting, survive in this age of modernism? How does he equate his love for the art of Velazquez, Vermeer, Renoir, and Sargent with the fact that he lives in the age of Picasso, Mondrian, and Pollock? How does he reconcile his wish to paint the good life as warmly and pleasurably as possible, with modernism's aches and agonies, its passionate hurlings into the unknown, and its formal experimentations? In short, how does he establish and sustain a creative identity in an age that tends to see him as irrelevant and even as reactionary?

Let's go one step further. Let's assume that he's also very interested in modernist ideas and forms, that his understanding of them is broad and detailed, and that he is actually pro-modernist in everything but his own work.

It's quite a spot to be in! On the one hand, his natural talents and interests draw him toward a kind of painting that went out of fashion over seventy years ago. And on the other, his intellectual and cultural pursuits define him as very much a man of his day.

The problem is often compounded by early success, by awards as a teenager for paintings that reflect his love for the portraits of Sargent, or the figure compositions of Renoir. And by the pure and simple enjoyment he receives from fulfilling his talent in the simplest and most natural way.

It's a confusing situation. Should he accept and follow his talents and inclinations, or should he try to redirect them toward modernist perceptions and ideals?

Most young artists faced with this dilemma compromise, and evolve a style that takes the best of both worlds without commitment to either. The result is art that is representational in concept, but which also looks somewhat ''modern'' because it partakes of modernist devices. Thus, landscapes, figure studies, and still lifes are broken down into geometric shapes and patterns, and are given arbitrary color schemes - or are stylized or made thematically ambiguous.

This sort of fence-straddling seldom works, however, for such ''modern'' effects are generally too superficial and obviously grafted onto the original concept to be convincing.

Another way out of this dilemma is to become wholeheartedly academic, to commit oneself totally to a traditional style, or to a combination of several. This at least is honest, and can actually result in some good work, as the National Academy of Design's Annual Exhibitions repeatedly prove.

And then there are those who make the quantum leap from the world of Renoir and Sargent to the world of Picasso and Pollock - and do it rather well.

The ones who most intrigue me, however, are those who choose to fulfill themselves as artists by following their natural talents and inclinations without fence-straddlings, returning dogmatically to the art of a previous period, or committing themselves totally to the ''new.''

There aren't many of them, but those who manage to pull it off tend to be a hardy and creatively healthy lot with few if any lingering doubts about their decision and with sufficient success to keep them going.

They do, however, have one other hurtle to surmount in their dealings with the art world (although not with their clients and collectors). And that is the strength and assertiveness of their talent. It tends to ''stick out,'' to call attention to itself. Not, I hasten to add, because their art is primarily technical, nor because it consits largely of virtuoso performances, but because modernism has made us all highly suspicious of any contemporary art that espouses the traditional values and skills.

In this context, one cannot help wondering what Rubens would be doing were he alive and painting today. Would his magnificently complex three-dimensional compositions of very-much-alive men and women have been boiled down to a bundle of colorful arabesques? Or would he have outdone Pollock with even larger canvases full of swirling paint? And what about Leonardo, Michelangelo, Velazquez, or Goya? What and how would they be painting today?

This is not idle speculation but a question of far-ranging implication. Would Dali, for instance, have been a truly important artist in an age more fully appreciative of his painterly skills and attitude? Or would he have been the brilliant misfit and clown he's been in ours?

We'll never know, but I suspect he would have been a better and truer painter had he lived in the seventeenth century. After all, most of what's good about his art derives from that century, and most of what's bad derives from ours.

Without doubt, the seventeenth was the greatest century for painting we've had so far - with the nineteenth not far behind. At no other time was painting (as opposed to drawing and tinting, smearing, dabbing, and dribbling), so fully and magnificently realized. Both centuries produced dozens of artists who carried painting to new heights. And that included John Singer Sargent, who even as a lesser member of the breed, still painted more brilliantly than anyone alive today.

Joseph Bowler is a contemporary portrait painter who very much agrees with this assessment of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century painting - and of Sargent's capabilities. He is also one of the relatively few portrait painters around today before whose work Sargent would probably have paused and tipped his hat. The reason is simple: Bowler paints in the solidly ''traditional'' style that Sargent would have understood and appreciated - and he does so very well.

Painting is as natural to Bowler as breathing. He started drawing when he was three and became a professional illustrator upon leaving high school. By the time he was nineteen he was doing illustrations for national magazines, and by his mid-twenties was recognized as one of the outstanding artists in his field. Portrait painting came a bit later, but when it did, it came to stay. It is the form of art to which he is now almost totally devoted.

Bowler paints in the tradition of the painterly magicians like Velazquez, Rubens, Vermeer, Renoir, and Sargent who created ''breathing'' likenesses with thin, almost transparent washes of paint accented here and there by touches of opaque color or white. In a Bowler oil sketch of a young girl's head and bust, the illusion of reality is uncanny - from the expression of the eyes to the angle of the jaw. And yet, analysis of these details reveals little, for they exist less as clearly defined entities as subtle contributors to the painting's overwhelmingly ''realistic'' illusion.

The same holds true of ''The Eyelet Dress.'' Here again, Bowler's magic is at work creating dozens of tiny, subtle, painterly effects that all add up to the final illusion. But there's more to it than that. There also is humanity, a celebration of the good life, tenderness, a display of sumptuous painting and subtle color, and a very special quality called art. They all come together in a painting of a young girl that will still be considered art centuries from now. It will probably, as a matter of fact, be better appreciated then than it is now.

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