The many masks of modern art; Dialogue that moves toward the new

There is a bursting-forth quality about much of today's art that is wonderful to see. One that makes it very clear that our immediate future will include many new and intriguing forms of art.

Among the more fascinating of the newer forms already with us is video art. It emerged and established itself in the 1960s and '70s, and has since gone on to engage an increasing number of younger artists. Room-size installations consisting of three-dimensional objects and two-dimensional images, are becoming very popular. And photography is being stretched, pushed, torn apart, and reassembled - or shown in its starkest simplicity - in ways that would have astonished that art's early champions.

Not to be outdone, painting, sculpture, printmaking - or combinations of the three - keep discovering dramatic and often beautiful ways to expand their technical, stylistic, and historical identities. And the art of drawing has so freed itself of its traditional definitions that some of our more interesting contemporary drawing shows would mean very little to Holbein, Ingres, or possibly even Picasso.

Art, in short, keeps expanding at a fantastic pace. Nothing can any longer be considered beyond the realm of art, and nothing can be declared non-art merely on the basis of its material or point of origin.

Some of the more wild-and-woolly newer art can be seen as a puzzle presented by the artist to the public to ''solve.'' Confronted by an installation consisting of several plastic animal heads, a wooden ladder painted yellow and purple, three electric fans going full blast, and a stuffed chicken, we must either walk away in disbelief or disgust, or try to puzzle it out. If we attempt the latter, we may very quickly decide that we should indeed have walked away, or we may suddenly grasp the artist's intentions and laugh out loud at the joke, or find ourselves touched by the work's deeper implications.

We can also see contemporary art as a dynamic and long-running ''dialogue'' between artist, curator, critic, collector, and art historian. The artist presents the ''topic,'' the work of art, and the rest respond. If the latter are perceptive and ''on target,'' what they say, write, or do may help the artist clarify his ideas, strengthen his resolve to follow a particular direction, or warn him of inconsistencies in what he is doing. The critic, however, cannot make absolute judgments on the art of his own day - he's too much a part of it. But he can help clarify its objectives, as well as lend support, point out inconsistencies or confusions, and serve as a goad to the artists of his time. But whatever, the critic should not set himself apart from - and certainly not above - the artist. There is nothing more ridiculous than the critic who sees artists as fair game, or himself as the dispenser of final judgments.

Meyer Schapiro, probably the most important American writer on art of the past 40 years, taught several generations of students and art lovers how to see, - not how to condemn. His positive approach put the emphasis where it belongs in art criticism: on clearer perception and deeper understanding, not on neater categorizations or more brilliant verbal pyrotechnics.

Art has benefitted considerably from his writings, but we are still limited by our ''either/or'' approach to art. We still hold that art today is either this or that, that it must focus exclusively on feeling or form, passion or perfection, story or design, realism or abstraction. No balance or compromise between extremes will do, and any attempt to effect such a compromise smacks of cultural decadence or weakness. In fact, nothing infuriates the purists among us quite so much as the notion that art can be pluralistic, that it can be as multifaceted and dependent upon human perspective and prejudice as any other form of human endeavor.

In our search for final and absolute artistic truth, we've continually gone from one extreme to another. We've moved from a kind of formal purity that is close to perfection (Mondrian) to an explosion of paint that is very close to pure passion (Pollock); and, more recently, from the formal ideals of Minimalism , to the near-hysteria of neo-Expressionism. Common sense also indicates that in a few short years we will once again follow the swinging pendulum to a ''new'' form of ''perfection.''

Back and forth, back and forth. Will it ever end? I think it will, and I see some of the seeds of what will move us forward in the work of the more provocative independents among us. These are the artists who are examining alternatives and extensions to the body of art we consider serious and most important today: the painting and sculpture derived directly or indirectly from the precepts and example of Cezanne, Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse, and the other seminal modernists. These young artists, while giving full credit to these great figures for what they produced and inspired, feel the need to give art wider horizons and a larger number of creative alternatives.

Some of these artists are out-and-out ''realists,'' with an approach to art that depends upon close observation and sensitive transcription. But the main body consists of artists who are creating new forms and modes of expression, or are combining existing ones in new and novel ways.

It's significant that women dominate any list of the best and most interesting of these innovators. Thanks to the work and example of older-generation women artists such as Nevelson, Bourgeois, and Martin (but most particularly Eva Hesse), an entire generation of younger women artists has burst upon the scene. Without the 20th-century male artist's need to overwhelm or destroy the accomplishments of his male predecessors, or to achieve a ''macho'' image of the sort that has impaired the work of several male artists, these women are free to focus their entire energy upon the creation of art.

Artists such as Judy Pfaff, Nancy Graves, Michelle Stuart, Susan Rothenberg, Barbara Valenta, Athena Tacha, Mary Lucier, Ursula von Rydingsvard, to mention only those who first spring to mind, are very much on their own. Their art may be difficult for some to comprehend at first, but that is generally due more to lack of historical precedent than to lack of quality.

One of my favorites is Alice Aycock, a builder of fascinating structures that range from small interior pieces to very large environmental constructions. Some are grandly architectural, with touches of wit and whimsy; others echo the forms and silhouettes of castles and amusement parks, and still others resemble unusual factories. But all reflect a concerned intelligence and an intriguing sensibility, and stand in the forefront of a genuinely new approach to art.

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