The many masks of mdoern art

Lifeless art is a contradiction in terms. It cannot be lifeless. Without the unifying and energizing qualities of the life force, paintings and sculptures are dead things - no matter how beautifully executed they may be.

Every true artist knows this. It's one of his deepest intuitions, and a keystone of his creative identity. It defines him. No matter what else may motivate him, an artist is primarily driven to shape and share the powerful life force he feels surging within him.

He knows he cannot deny it, that it will be heard no matter what, and that, if he cannot give it voice in a traditional form or mode of expression, it will emerge as something totally new.

At times of stress and intense inner pressure, that life force may erupt like a volcano and produce an El Greco, a Van Gogh, or a Pollock. Or, if it's more a matter of confusion for the artist, or lack of direction, it may try to redefine itself in irreducible terms, and produce a Brancusi or Mondrian. But mostly, it will adjust to an artist's limitations, and effect a compromise between what an artist can (or will) do, and what it must. Such art, needless to say, while often attractive and impressive, is flawed, and generally has a life span of only a few years.

Because such work is generally derivative or a pastiche of fashionable styles , it will cease to be of any real interest once those styles are no longer in fashion. Nothing is more dated, after all, than a merely fashionable painting once the fashion changes. Where, for instance, are the tens of thousands of derivative Abstract Expressionist paintings the art world admired during the 1950s? Or, for that matter, the even larger number of etchings in the style of Whistler and Haden produced between 1870 and 1920? They are almost all gone, or can be bought for five or ten dollars each in used-furniture stores.

Originality is quite rare, and for a reason that goes much deeper than talent or genius: most of us are afraid to be ourselves, and would rather huddle with the herd than listen to the life force within us and allow it to emerge in a way uniquely our own.

It is not a matter of importance or greatness, but of personal truth. The sort of truth that comes from within, and that cannot be forced into prearranged shapes and forms, but simply must be permitted to be. Calder, Klee, and Miro, after all, were not only among the most talented members of their generation, they were also among the most sensitive and true - and had the great good sense to listen carefully to what lay within them.

Originality can be difficult to detect or startlingly obvious. It can challenge what we believe, or underscore it, seem too obscure to be real or too blatant to be true. But in any case, it can have a significant effect upon us, if we allow it to.

It need not be of great importance. Art, like truth, can speak in a soft voice, and within a limited range. It can charm as well as thunder.

Such is the case with the art of Jacob Kass, an itinerant designer and truck letterer who, a few years after retirement, began painting scenes of the Vermont countryside on steel saw blades.

These blades are of all sizes and varieties, from oddly shaped hay saws to larger circular saws. He covers them with a wide variety of panoramic, ''primitive'' landscapes, including skating scenes, sawmills, cornfields, farmers at work, autumn vistas, and so on. These are carefully (although intuitively) designed to take full advantage of each blade's particular shape, and are painted in the clear, bright palette of the ''primitive'' artist.

It's difficult to imagine anyone not liking these painted saws or, for that matter, not respecting the artist who created them. They are extraordinarily life-enhancing, and have great formal integrity - qualities that are only enhanced by the fact that one can never quite forget that a saw's original function is to cut.

Their outright likability may result at least partly from the fact that Kass spent almost fifty years of his life trying to entice the public into paying attention to his clients' trucks and to their products. His job as truck letterer demanded not only that he could do large and ornate lettering, but that he could paint brightly colored pictures of everything from the Brooklyn Bridge to egg cartons on the sides of the trucks as well.

He retired from that job in 1973, fully intending never again to look at a paintbrush. But things didn't turn out that way. He writes: ''My wife, Juliet, and I went to a lot of auctions in New England and I would buy old furniture and stuff that I would fix up and then resell. . . . In 1977 I decided to paint a picture of my place in Vermont on an old handsaw from my shed. I enjoyed doing it and, having a dozen or so old saws on hand, I started to paint the things I saw around me in Vermont on them. People liked them and would ask me to paint one for them. . . . Now, in my retiring years, I am fulfilling my lifelong ambition - painting what I want to paint for the pleasure of it and not because I have to.''

He is doing something else as well. He's tapping the wellsprings of his own unique creativity without concerning himself about what the rest of the world considers art. And he's doing it in a way that takes full advantage of everything he's seen, experienced, and enjoyed doing. It's obvious that his painted saws are labors of love, that he thoroughly enjoys bringing them to life , and that he knows precisely what he is doing in every one of them. In short, his paintings are as much examples of loving craftsmanship as of art.

Most interesting, however, is the dramatic way they stand out from most of the work hanging in our galleries today, and not only because of their novelty. In someone else's hands, a painted saw could easily be nothing but a commercial gimmick. In Kass's, however, it's a genuine, if minor, work of art.

As such, the saws will be as charming, intriguing, and as alive three or four centuries from now as they are today. And that's something I cannot say about most of the contemporary paintings I see - especially those that are created merely to embody a fashionable style, or to be ''challenging'' or ''different.''

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