Where art has come in 50 years of dynamic change

A reader very kindly sent me the Dec. 24, 1934, issue of Time magazine. It features a Thomas Hart Benton self-portrait on the cover and devotes considerable space to a well-illustrated article on the Regionalist and American Scene movements just then beginning to dominate American art.

This reader also sent several art magazines dating from 1935 to 1944 and a batch of newspaper clippings detailing major New York museum and gallery exhibitions of the same period.

It made fascinating and nostalgic reading and caused me to go into my own files to find issues of the art magazines I've been collecting since the late 1940s - and then to spend an hour or so leafing through recent issues of current art magazines.

Things certainly have changed dramatically in American art since 1934! Almost a dozen major art movements have come and gone since Abstract Expressionism toppled most of what Time magazine celebrated with such fanfare in that year. And not only the art has changed. The art world itself is very different today from what it was then.

There were far fewer galleries then - a few dozen as compared to the roughly 450 in the New York area today. The April 1936 issue of the American Magazine of Art, for example, lists 46 New York gallery exhibitions, and its November 1943 issues list only 45. And that number would not significantly change until the end of the 1940s.

There were other differences as well. Art wasn't ''big business'' then, and very few accountants were recommending to their clients that they invest in paintings or fine prints. Knowing the names of emerging artists wasn't considered crucial for social success, and collectors hadn't yet started depositing newly purchased contemporary works of art into vaults for safekeeping.

Banks and corporations didn't collect paintings by the hundreds, and corporations didn't spend fortunes sponsoring exhibitions. Art books appeared one at a time, and they were of a reasonable size. The collecting of prints was confined to those who really loved them.

But mostly, the art was different. It was, with very few exceptions, representational and depicted people, things, places, and events in a variety of styles that fused direct observation with lessons learned from the Old Masters and earlier 20th-century Americans. Leafing through the art magazines of the 1935-45 period, I found reproductions of work by, among others, the then well-known Ernest Fiene, William Gropper, Henry Varnum Poor, Alexander Brook, and Franklin C. Watkins. I came across a fascinating article by the painter Philip Evergood in which he admitted, ''Sure, I'm a social painter'' and then went on to declare that, ''As a matter of pure fact, all good art throughout the ages has been social art.'' There was an article that hinted broadly that modernism was finally on the wane, others that stated emphatically that Benton would one day be acclaimed this century's greatest American painter.

Around 1946, things began to change. More and more articles on such wild and woolly characters as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still began to appear. And then Life magazine came out with an article on Pollock asking if he was America's greatest painter. With that, the floodgates opened, and before anyone knew what had happened, scores of artists throughout the United States were devoting their energies to hurling or dribbling paint onto increasingly huge canvases.

I remember those days clearly - and how truly excited many of us were at the fact that paint was finally free to explode upon canvas. We learned soon enough, however, that things weren't that simple.

By the early 1950s, we were asking ourselves what it all meant and where we were going. We evolved several alternatives and gradually began to trust and accept them. We moved on, but one thing was certain: Thanks to what had happened during the 1940s, things would never again be the same in American art.

And they weren't. Pop-Art, in particular, saw to that. From then until now, something dramatically new and challenging has always appeared the moment things seemed to be getting dull and boring.

Whenever this happened, it was immediately and exhaustively covered by the art magazines. One of them, Art News, had, by the early 1950s, become as powerful as the Museum of Modern Art and a handful of critics and dealers in the shaping of Amercan art. Its impact upon the minds, sensibilities, and ambitions of younger American artists was enormous.

If leafing through the art magazines of the '30s and '40s is fascinating, going through those of the following decades is truly bewildering. Our senses are assaulted by page after page of brilliant color, and our minds are exhausted by endless articles often written in a style more appropriate for medieval theological disputations than for art. There's no question that quality and significance are there. It's just that they often are difficult to find in the midst of so much self-serving art and writing.

But then, that pretty much reflects today's art world. For all its puffery and tomfoolery, it produces more excellent art today than at any time during the past 50 years - and in a greater variety of styles. It also, unfortunately, produces more garbage masquerading as art - which wouldn't be so bad if we cared as much as we should about the lack of distinction between what is and what is not art.

This disinterest probably would have disturbed the readers of Time magazine's story on the Regionalists and the American Scene painters even more than the art we are now producing. But then, art in those days was seen in very romantic and grandiloquent terms.

It is amusing to conjecture what Thomas Hart Benton would have said, had he known that the young man he used as the model for the harmonica-player in his ''The Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley'' (reproduced opposite page 24 in that 1934 issue of Time), would dethrone him as America's most controversial painter within a few short years. He certainly would have been surprised, for Jackson Pollock was only one of his students at the time and someone who occasionally posed for him.

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