The many masks of modern art

Art is an argument for life that is more intense and persistent now than ever before. We prefer, however, not to hear it, unless it is couched in neatly traditional or conventionally modern terms. Or has received the blessings of our cultural soothsayers and prophets.

And no wonder, for some of art's central themes today are painful and difficult to bear, and palatable to most only if first sanitized or neutralized.

Art will have none of that, however, and insists we confront life boldly and experience it deeply and fully. And that we do our best to perceive and to comprehend the social and spiritual nature of our historical time and place.

In regard to this, I've written before of Edvard Munch's great print ''The Cry,'' and of my conviction that it is the ''soul-cry'' of our age. The cry of alienation, dread, anxiety, and horror heard in no man's land in World War I, in Guernica, Buchenwald, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. In Harlem and Siberia, and in prisons and mental institutions.

And I've written of art's response to that cry, of its often desperate and misunderstood attempts to counter despair with hope, chaos with order, and apathy with affirmation.

I have stressed that art is potentially almost as broad and deep as life itself. That a need for it in one form or other exists in each and every one of us. And that it will invariably and inevitably search out and reveal what is most alive and true for every time and for every place.

In short, I believe art to be among the simplest, richest, and most significant of life's gifts to man. It both represents who man is, and illuminates the distance he still has to go. It probes, projects, and celebrates. It gives voice and form to otherwise mute and hidden dimensions of being. And it can heal, reconcile, and give direction.

It can only do so, however, if it remains in direct contact with life's rhythms and realities, and does not fall victim to the notion that art is based more on other art than on life. The true artist, after all, regardless of dependency upon tradition and a shared symbolic language, goes first to life for inspiration, and only secondarily to the byproducts of other people's creativity.

The artist must see, feel, imagine, empathize, and express himself as close to the stark dimensions of reality as possible - be they joyous or tragic. And this means the artist must break free, at least to a degree, from other artists' or other cultures' perceptions and formal realizations - no matter how tempting or true they may be. He must see and act as much as possible by and for himself, and present the rest of us with something vibrant and alive, not with something warmed over and secondhand.

The greatest thing an artist can do for humanity is to share his clearest, richest, deepest, and most subtle life-experiences. But it must be something personally experienced, not a watered-down version of what someone else experienced and turned into art. To do so, however, artists must become vulnerable, open themselves up, and even be willing to ''stammer'' a bit while groping for the appropriate form or mode of expression. They must remember that even in art, what is conveyed is more important than how it is conveyed. And that secondhand and lifeless art is a contradiction in terms - no matter how ''beautiful'' or ''significant'' it may appear to be.

Charles Burchfield understood this perfectly. His remarkably authentic and lyrically celebratory watercolors of nature's appearances and workings are direct and highly provocative transcriptions of what he himself saw and felt. At their best, in fact, they speak so clearly and powerfully of life's more positive nature that they can easily hang beside and ''answer'' Munch's great cry of anxiety and despair.

But then, Burchfield always had a clear understanding of the darker side of life, and of its grip upon people's minds and emotions. His early watercolors often presented nature in a melancholy and brooding light, and his middle-period studies of small-town and industrial life depicted the gloom of the depression era with great accuracy.

It wasn't until the early 1940s that his more positive and lyrical side emerged, but when it did, it very quickly took over. At first, he reworked paintings from as far back as 1917, and enlarged others. But gradually he permitted his inner, deeply romantic, and ecstatic feelings for nature to flow more freely, and in some cases actually to erupt.

From then on, his paintings hum, explode, sing, pulsate, and shout with the drama of life. Nature is passionately alive and Burchfield is there to celebrate it. Tiny violets cannot wait to burst from the earth in order to turn their faces fully toward the sun. Weeds, insects, forests, mountains, and clouds all fuse into one shimmering image in the August heat. Trees snap or whip about in the wind, burst into foliage, buzz with the sounds of insects, or reach for the sky. Everything vibrates with life, and exults in it with passion and, generally , with joy.

What we see and feel in these paintings, however, is as much Burchfield as it is nature, for he was trying to share his experiences before nature with us, not merely to point out some of its more interesting features.

To do this, he needed a pictorial code ''real'' enough to establish the authenticity of his experiences, and provocative enough to stir our emotions and feelings. It took him much of his life to fashion this ''code,'' to distill nature's central realities into the shapes, colors, lines, and textures we recognize as grass, trees, birds, clouds, etc., in his paintings. And to learn how to energize them, and to direct them to trigger the appropriate emotional responses in us.

But he succeeded. His enthusiasms and exultations before nature are transmitted to us at the precise moment we recognize his subject for what it is. And, because it all happens simultaneously, we share the full nature, quality, and intensity of his experience - and receive a full and lyrical reaffirmation of the beauty and the value of life.

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