A painter friend confessed his most secret desire to me the other day. It was to leave his SoHo loft forever and spend the rest of his life deep in the wilds of British Columbia, painting only what he saw and experienced around him every day.
He said he wants to get back to basics, to let his art evolve directly out of earth's forms, textures, colors, and rhythms, and not to have to concern himself all the time with the creation of ''significant'' art.
But mostly, he wants to get away from New York's hothouse atmosphere, its success and product-oriented approach to art, and its focus on the most novel, daring, and innovative methods of fashioning art.
What he wants, he said, is peace, and the opportunity to listen once again to what lies deep within him - and within the natural world around him. It is, he admits, quite romantic and Thoreau-like of him to feel this way. But he hungers for the simple, ''natural'' life, and for the opportunity it might give him to rekindle his creative spirit, and to point it in another, possibly more fulfilling, direction.
I doubt my friend will make the move. His promising career as an innovative modernist already has a life and a will of its own that simply won't permit his dream to become a reality.
There are others, however, for whom such a non-urban environment is home - and thus hardly the stuff of dreams. And for whom art has always been the straightforward, sensitive, or dramatic depiction of what they see around them.
These are the artists who paint our American landscapes, lakeshore vistas, cloud formations, mountains, birds, and animals in the woods and who produce watercolors and drawings of trees, fields, forests, and of everything that lives or grows within them.
They are also the artists who took academic and modernist theories and techniques and applied them to such things as trappers in the woods (Winslow Homer); pine trees battling the wind off the Maine coast (John Marin); logjams on a northern river (Marsden Hartley); and tiny shore birds standing in the surf (Morris Graves).
These artists exist everywhere, and generally paint better and more truly than our ''official'' art world cares to admit. But then, they represent attitudes and values that are often quite at odds with those held by many of our highly urbanized cultural leaders.
''Rural'' American artists are generally much less concerned than are their ''urban'' colleagues with purely formal artistic matters, and more likely to be inspired by the great outdoors than by what they see in galleries and museums. They see themselves more as humble transmitters of the beauty that lies before them in a mountain or a forest stream than as the creators of forms, color arrangements, or spatial constructions.
But mostly, they are particularly respectful of appearances, of the way moss looks after a rainstorm, or water glistens on a rock. They pay attention to details and nuances, not so much for their own sakes, but because it's the only way they can truly convey the full identity and quality of what they paint.
The ''urban'' artist, on the other hand, is under greater pressure to conform to formal ideals and painterly fashions, and to be prepared to modify his style every few years to accommodate changes in art world attitudes. If he's caught up in the politics of the art world, he spends a great deal of time keeping up with the latest in everything from styles and theories to gossip and power plays, and in looking to right and left to see what everyone else is painting. In such an environment, an artist can quickly find himself trapped in a form of high-pressured group creative activity in which conformity is expected, and individuality is scorned.
It is just this sort of pressured and competitive existence to which my friend objects, and from which he'd like to flee. And yet, large groups of young artists throughout the United States are just as eager to come to New York as he is to leave it.
Many will come, and a few will stay and adapt themselves to the way things are done in the big city. The price they'll pay will vary according to individual temperament and goals. For some it may be painful and seem excessive - but then, the rewards that can come their way can be great.
They will learn, for one thing, how to fit in both personally and professionally. They will also be as close as anyone to the urban crucible of contemporary American art, and among the very first to know when to add a little more of this or that in order to satisfy its demands.
In the meantime, however, the gap widens between what this ''crucible'' produces and what our ''rural'' artists see fit to paint.And the degree of understanding and respect that still somewhat shakily exists between these two extremes diminishes.
Museum curators fanning out over the United States in search of new art for ''emergent artists'' or ''comprehensive American'' exhibitions invariably return to New York with art that reflects largely urban, and specifically New York, attitudes and values. The other, more strictly ''rural'' or regional art is left behind as of little interest, or, worse still, as ''irrelevant.''
No wonder the gap widens, and why there is so little understanding between the extremes of American art. Museum and art-critical responsibility should extend beyond mere bemused tolerance of dramatically divergent points of view and toward a more open and actively sympathetic concern for all forms of art. Modernism, after all, is no longer fighting for its life, and the very newest ''urban'' art such as that by Frank Stella or Susan Rothenberg will not be invalidated or contaminated by the inclusion in our museums of a truer cross section of American art.