The many masks of modern art

I feel comfortable with artists. Especially those who love art more than the fame it may someday bring them - or has already brought them - and who see themselves more as lifelong students of their craft than as cultural heroes deserving special attention.

Even the humblest of these artists follow difficult paths, and obey deeply private creative codes that offer no guarantees beyond constant striving - and occasional moments of profound self-realization. Yet, they serve valuable social and cultural functions: they remind us that truth and beauty dom exist, and that wealth, fame, security, and power need not be man's only goals.

I'll go even further. These artists bless mankind by continually reminding it of its genius and its soul, and by advocating an open and generous attitude toward life and all living things.

To some, that may seem like an extravagant claim for a group of individuals whose major distinction is the possession of a certain type of talent. How, these skeptics ask, can such impractical, if well-meaning, people contribute anything of true significance to our rough-and-tumble world? Aren't they hopelessly romantic and idealistic, and tolerated mainly because they are mildly amusing and can do no harm? Even Picasso, they'll argue, was never half as ''important'' as a United States senator or a Wall Street banker. And all the artists in the world acting in unison do not have as much power to affect human destiny as any member of the President's Cabinet.

In the immediate sense, that may be so. No artist has the power to wage war and destroy half the world in a matter of minutes - something an increasing number of ''important'' people around the globe can do.

The artist, on the other hand, concerns himself with such ''unimportant'' things as life, beauty, truth, creativity, and helping to maintain a sense of continuity for the human spirit. He's a shaper, a builder, a transmitter of quality, someone who refuses to accept chaos and destruction as representative of the best in life. But most specifically, he's a spokesman for life itself. His may be a relatively quiet voice, and it may often be drowned out by political hysteria, but it will always reemerge to make its point through its own subtle and often mysterious ways.

There are several artists I could discuss within this context, but none seems more appropriate than Esteban Vicente. Not only because he's been a respected fixture in American art for several decades, but because his entire adult life has been given over to the pursuit of artistic quality and truth.

It's been a quiet, consistent, inexorable pursuit that took him from his native Spain to France and Germany, and then, in 1936, to New York. It has also been a highly successful one, for his most recent one-man exhibition, billed by his gallery as his 80th birthday celebration, was his best ever. It wasn't particularly large, and it certainly wasn't, by today's standards, dramatic. Yet it contained a few of the most hauntingly beautiful abstract paintings anyone has produced of late.

I've known his work since my own art school days. One or two of his large, loosely brushed abstractions were generally included in exhibitions devoted to the Abstract Expressionists or to the artists of the New York School. And then, over the years, I've seen several of his one-man shows.

I liked his paintings and collages from the start. Not perhaps as much as those by Pollock, Still, de Kooning, and Kline, but almost as much. I suspect now that his sensibilities were too subtle for me at the time, and that his rate of growth was too slow and steady for my youthful prejudice for pictorial drama. But my reaction to his work began to change during the early 1970s, and by the end of that decade I was very taken with what he was producing.

Even so, I didn't know what to expect of his recent one-man show. I wanted it to be good because I'm sentimental enough to want artists whose work I admire to outdo themselves as they grow older. But mostly because his art represents those very qualities I discussed earlier in this essay, and a successful show of his work would do a great deal to underscore them.

I needn't have worried. The exhibition was a beauty, and I was able to write in my review: ''The works themselves continue to explore Vicente's longtime fascination with color luminosity - most particularly as it is evoked within rigidly two-dimensional spatial systems. . . . What Vicente can do with a small dash of green, a flash of icy blue, or a smudge of red has to be seen to be believed. His color relationships and dramas both stun and delight our sensibilities and cause us to wonder why we never before realized that thatm blue and thatm gray, and thatm particular shade of red, when positioned next to a sliver of very light green, could create such an achingly beautiful effect. . . . Thanks to his painterly magic, we are led to experience subtleties and nuances of color we never knew existed before.''

If the show was a delight, getting to know Vicente personally was equally so. We met at a party, exchanged a few words, and have seen each other a few times since. As I said earlier, I feel very comfortable in his presence, mostly because he loves art more than fame, and sees himself more as a student of his craft than as a success.

I listened very carefully when he talked of other painters because I knew the minute he first spoke of Velazquez and Goya that he had really lookedm at their paintings and had thought deeply about them. Even when we disagree, I pay attention to what he says, because it is always deeply felt and consistent with his vision of life and art.

We ran into one another on the street a few weeks ago, and continued on together for several blocks. He had just been awarded a major prize, and we discussed that for a bit. But then the talk became more general: who had moved to a new gallery; which exhibitions were worth seeing and which weren't; and who seemed to be losing his effectiveness as a painter. Nothing much, and yet I felt extraordinarily good after leaving him. In just a few short minutes he had managed to convey something of his sensibility and style to me - the very same qualities his paintings convey. And by doing so, he had illuminated and enriched my day.

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