A simple discipline

Perhaps no art is as terse as that of the Chinese. The quality of understatement is seen in the conciseness of each line and the vast expanses of empty space. The relentless passion for conciseness in Chinese art is seen in the least of the artists as well as the greatest. It is of course true that the emptiness in lesser artists' works is just that: emptiness - a minimum of visual elements with an absence of meaning.

Spareness should not be confused with blankness. The emptiness of Ch'an, for instance, is not in the least the same as blankness of mind. The aptness of the phrase ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing comes nothing, is a standing rebuke to those works in which poverty of intellect has been confused with leanness of style. It is the wise artist who resists succumbing to the need to fill in space. It is the superior artist who knows how to use, in tandem, the terseness of notation and the emptiness of space to make his point. Speaking in general for the idea of ''less is more,'' Stephane Mallarme refers to ''a pregnant silence, no less wonderful to compose than the verse itself.''

A towering example of leanness of style leading to weightiness of substance is the work of the great T'ang master, Wu Tao-tzu. The story is told of Wu and another artist being commissioned to paint vast landscapes on the spacious walls of Ta-t'ung. The other artist began work immediately and spent several months completing an altogether creditable landscape. Wu, on the other hand, meditated among the peaks and valleys for months before beginning his labors. The second effort resulted in a ''hundred miles of landscape'' that was tossed off in a single day and which rivaled in brilliance the other work. Lu Ch'ai might well have spoken of Wu when he said, ''One stroke of his brush represents many tens of feet.''

The striving toward an increasing deftness in the handling of brush to transmit the flash of intuition was akin to a religious exercise. The command of this type of painting in ink, where one's intuitive genius was given immediate and concise materialization, was called ''i.'' Even here, in bestowing a name, the wondrous Chinese characteristic for brevity and aptness of description is demonstrated.

Technique itself worked hand in hand with religion to produce an art of spareness. Often the methods used in rendering lent themselves to understated aesthetic effects. The abbreviated brushstrokes (chien-pi), for which the Chinese had a decided propensity, revealed far more in the skips and leaps of line than they omitted. Putting it another way, absence of stroke begat eloquence rather than muteness. The Chinese artist's ''pregnant silence'' spoke volumes.

Characteristic of the Chinese penchant for pictographics, the brushstrokes themselves were given self-descriptive names such as ''tangled hemp,'' ''axe-cut ,'' ''raindrop,'' and ''whirlpool.'' It becomes easier to understand how an art of spareness can bear such a heavy load of content when we see the compression of meaning in the smallest details. A single stroke of the brush might describe an entire whirlpool. Lu Chai's artist represented many tens of feet with one stroke of his brush; the very best of China's artists sometimes represented a thousand years of Chinese thought with a single inspired stroke.

Six Persimmons, attributed to the late 13th-century painter Mu-ch'i, is just such a work of terseness. The limited number of shapes and lines sit jauntily upon the surface of the work. The attitudes bestowed upon them are distinctive and result in the personifying of the fruit. They sit there squat but alive, alert to their barren surroundings, like sentinels before the openness of their keep. The tautness of their distancing holds the persimmons together as a group. Individualistic but inseparable. They can only be as they are.

The artist has not touched the surface more than a score of times, yet how eloquent the tale. The fruit, poised before the vast space beyond them, are a metaphor of our own thoughts contemplating the unmeasured wonders of the infinite. The fruit, as well as our thoughts, are at one with each other, space, and the infinite. The pregnant voids of the work are indeed no less wonderful than the poetic stabs and thrusts of the artist's deft and inspired brush.

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