The many masks of modern art

It disturbs some readers that I like as many kinds of art as I do. And that my tastes roam freely among the many art styles and movements this century has spawned.

They are particularly concerned by my lack of partisanship and my unwillingness to base my critical position upon one or another modernist, post-modernist, or anti-modernist premise or theory. And by the fact that I am not a ''true believer'' in one approach to art over another.

I am accused of having no standards, of ''liking everybody,'' and of appreciating some art merely for its subject matter. One person claims that my only critical criterion is that a work trigger positive feelings in me. And another states that I cannot truly love art because I accept so much of it.

In short, I'm accused of being insufficiently critical - a serious offense, I'm told, in an art critic.

The truth of the matter is that I have extremely high standards, and that if I were to apply them ruthlessly and exclusively there would be almost nothing I see, during my rounds of the galleries, worth writing about. And only a little more worth discussing in the museums.

I judge art by its formal integrity, depth, and range, not by its cultural, religious, or aesthetic affiliations, and most emphatically not by the artistic dogma it represents. If I did, I'd have a difficult time accepting first-rate examples of Egyptian sculpture, Chinese brush-drawing, Persian miniature painting, Renaissance fresco work, and French Impressionism equally as art. One or another would most clearly represent my perception of art's true nature, and would thus dramatically outrank or exclude all others.

The same applies to twentieth-century art. If I believed that artistic truth resided primarily or exclusively in one of the various forms of Modernism (or in Modernism itself), I could easily judge all work that accurately represented that form as art - and everything else as non-art. But I can no more believe that than I can believe that English is man's true language, or that blue is a truer color than red.

Confronted by the art of this century, I can only judge it according to the depth and complexity of my considered response to it, and not by the degree to which it represents certain modernist or non-modernist ideals. And confronted by the still-emerging art of today, I can only respond to it according to how vital , cohesive, direct, and life-enhancing it is. All other matters, such as style, verisimilitude, or innovative brilliance, come second. I must, of course, concern myself with what the artist believed and intended in order to fullym perceive and experience his work, but his beliefs and intentions do not, by themselves, determine my opinion of his work.

An art critic must see art whole, and within the largest possible context. Without a larger vision of what art is, what it has accomplished, and what it will still accomplish, his judgments of art are little more than the expressions of personal likes and dislikes. Or are based on how impressed he is by a work's size, workmanship, or reputation. Without having experienced Michelangelo's grandeur, Rembrandt's depths, or Rubens' brilliance, he can easily believe that Pollock was the greatest artist who ever lived, Warhol the most original, and Wyeth the most profound. And without some idea of how magnificent drawing was in the hands of Holbein, Degas, or Picasso, he can easily be fooled into believing that the ''accurate'' portrait sketch he commissioned one Sunday in the park is a great work of art.

The enemy is shortsightedness, and it doesn't matter if it results from dogma or naivete. The result is always the same: a too narrow perception of what art is and can be.

Art is almost as complex as man, and almost as difficult to judge. If we're wise, we'll learn as much as possible about both before passing judgment on either. Just as I find it increasingly difficult to judge my fellow humans as I get older, so do I find it increasingly difficult to be dogmatic in matters of art. There are too many imponderables, too many hidden nuances for hasty or final decisions.

Since I'm primarily interested in what a work of art communicates, I first take stock of how it moves, provokes, or engages me. Do I feel I'm in the presence of something large and all-encompassing - or something small and merely diverting? Do I detect greatness or pettiness - or merely something banal?

These questions mean a great deal more to me than matters of style. And because they do, I examine a work's style only after satisfying myself as to its character, impact, and life-enhancing qualities. If it ''speaks'' to me of life, I will study it further. If it does not, I will move on, no matter how beautifully or cleverly it was made.

Seen within the overall context of art (and not merely in relation to modernist or anti-modernist dogma), Johns and Wyeth rank about equally in my estimation as artists; Pollock stands considerably higher than Hopper; Cezanne towers over everyone who's come after him; and Stella and Kollwitz will very likely share equal status among this century's major printmakers. If I fail to take sides in the modernist and anti-modernist debate of the past twenty years, it's because I think everyone involved falls far short of major stature - and not because I necessarily hold to one position or other.

I could go on and on with my opinions, but I'd much rather introduce my readers to those creators who have something new, vital, or interesting to communicate as art. These artists represent all ages and almost the full spectrum of twentieth-century art. If their range is too great for some, I'm sorry, but I refuse to exclude anyone on the basis of his unfashionable style, or because his work is not considered up-to-date.

I know that the work by Gregory Paquette reproduced on this page will receive a mixed response. It fits no fashionable mold, and doesn't address itself to any of the art world's burning issues. But it's an excellent work nevertheless.

To date, Paquette has devoted himself exclusively to making highly finished drawings that have all the complexities of painting except color. These are extraordinarily detailed, beautifully crafted, and composed with consummate skill. Even so, it's difficult to say how far he'll go. He's still a very young man with most of his career ahead of him. But I do know that what he has already produced is good. And for the moment, I'm happy to leave it at that.

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