The many masks of modern art

The seeds of the mature style of many modernist artists can be found in their early work. Thus, Miro's famous, free-floating ''abstract'' forms were already hinted at in his youthful, ornamental landscapes and figure studies. And Pollock's swirling ''dribblings'' were forecast in his turbulent pre-Abstract Expressionist compositions.

The same holds true of Mondrian's right angles and primary colors, Matisse's formal simplifications, and Diebenkorn's elegant reductions. In each case, the artist's mature style evolved logically and inevitably from stylistic and conceptual seeds planted early in his career.

This was particularly true of several American painters of the 1930s whose styles changed or evolved dramatically during the late 1940s and early '50s. Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko - to mention only a few of the most noteworthy - simplified and ''streamlined'' their art to the point where it often seemed at odds with what it had been before. And even such painters as Milton Avery, Edward Hopper, and Charles Burchfield brought their art to a greater degree of formal simplicity during those years.

If artists weren't simplifying their art, they were boiling it down to what they felt were its absolute essentials. Pollock discarded the easel and brush for dribbling and hurling paint onto canvas laid out on the floor. Kline found his final style by isolating and magnifying a tiny segment of a drawing. And Guston went from complex figure paintings to canvases filled with sensitively attuned touches of pure color.

Modernism was in the air, and with it came painterly enthusiasm and one or another form of abstraction. Hardly anyone was immune. Those who tried to hold out were overwhelmed and soon forgotten. Within a few short years American painting had reversed itself. From being militantly conservative, it had moved to the position of the extreme avant-garde.

In retrospect, it seems logical that such artists as Rothko and Gottlieb should have made that leap toward abstraction. They were, after all, already quite close to a form of abstraction in their earlier work - representational though it might have been in theory. What is not so easily explained is why a few equally excellent and forward-looking painters of the 1930s did not make that leap, and continued on in the style they had forged during their youth.

A prime example is Joseph Solman, an American-scene painter of modernist tendencies who had worked for the WPA Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1941. His warm, richly colored, and beautifully designed street and harbor scenes were not only deeply felt, they were also among the most innovatively ''modern'' American paintings of the period.

Solman belonged to ''The Ten,'' an important vanguard art movement founded in 1935 to ''attempt to combine a social consciousness with an Abstract Expressionistic heritage, thus saving art from being mere propaganda on the one hand, or mere formalism on the other.'' ''The Ten,'' to which Gottlieb, Rothko, and Bolotowsky also belonged, was firmly opposed to the sentimental and romanticized Regionalism espoused by the likes of Curry and Wood, and tried to make its point first by refusing to exhibit at the Whitney Museum, and then by exhibiting independently as a group.

Its goal was to bring American art into the modernist mainstream without, at the same time, depriving it of its uniquely American flavor. ''The Ten'' were not, however, held together by theory or dogma, but by shared enthusiasms and a common goal. But even those were personalized by each of its members - and understandably so, for each was a painter first, and a theorist second. What they did have in common was a vision of painting that was loosely Expressionistic, that looked to Matisse, Picasso, Soutine, Rouault, and Ryder for formal guidance, and to the American scene for subject and inspiration.

Solman's art, in particular, represented a perfect balance between a strictly American subject - the streets and people of New York - and a very modernist way of painting that subject. His canvases of the 1930s were extraordinary evocations of very particular places ''Union Square,'' ''East Side Playground,'' and superbly orchestrated exercises in modernist form, composition, and color. Each was authentically ''New York,'' and provocatively ''modern'' at one and the same time.

It seems a bit surprising, therefore, that Solman didn't move on to become one of the American avant-garde of the 1940s, or, more precisely, one of that decade's important Abstract Expressionists. He certainly had the talent and the material for it. His paintings of the 1930s were among the best American paintings of the period. And, just as much to the point, they seemed only one step away from abstraction, and only another half-step away from a warm and sumptuous form of Abstract Expressionism.

Had he taken that step, I suspect he would have ranked among the very best of the Abstract Expressionists. But he did not, and his reasons for not doing so intrigue and fascinate me.

I asked the artist himself, and received a simple response: ''There were still too many aspects of the universe I wanted to paint.''

It was a good answer, and one that satisfied me. Art for him, in other words, was an act of exploration and discovery. It was an engagement, having a painterly dialogue between a specific place and its pictorial potential, and not the personification of an abstract theory or idea.

Solman painted in order to discover fascinating shapes and colors in the world around him, and to enrich his life by evoking them on canvas or paper. Since reality and art were so deeply intertwined for him, he could no more have denied the former for a total immersion in abstract color and form than he could have discarded the nourishment of food in order to savor more totally its flavor and taste.

All that makes great sense - except possibly to those who feel art must always evolve toward its logical conclusion. Who feel that a young artist who composes in severely geometric patterns cannot be truly himself until his art consists of nothing but circles, squares, and triangles. And that a youthful colorist won't become himself until his art consists of nothing but touches of pure color.

I'm grateful for the art of Joseph Solman. Not only because it is beautiful in itself, but because it reminds us that the best art isn't necessarily the most extreme.

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