The many masks of modern art; Putting it on the line

Some art results from split-second timing, and the ability to put everything one has into something as simple as a thin line whipping across a canvas and stopping dead only a hairsbreadth away from a splash of vivid red. Or as direct as an aggressive wash of blue colliding with an area of yellow and overlapping it just enough to create a narrow sliver of green.

It sounds easy, but it's not. In some ways it requires as much skill and experience as an acrobat needs to catch his partner in midair. In both instances , everything depends on concentration, timing, and experience - and on the willingness to risk everything on one simple gesture or act.

This kind of art was very much in evidence during the days of the Abstract Expressionists and is still practiced to one degree or another by those of its members still active today. Motherwell, Frankenthaler, and Stamos basically still paint in this fashion, and de Kooning occasionally comes close to it. But there aren't many others - although Ida Kohlmeyer and Enrico Donati would have to be included among those who do.

It's a pity, in a way, that so few artists feel impelled to work in this fashion. It's a tremendous challenge, and very exciting - for both artist and viewer - when it works. Very few mid- to late-20th-century paintings, after all, can match the best of what Miro, Gorky, Pollock, Kline, Still, or Motherwell produced for sheer pictorial drama. And very few painters today can say as much as Richard Diebenkorn can with two or three simple shapes, as many colors, and a line or two.

But apart from these artists and a handful of others, no one seems particularly interested. If asked, most painters will say that this kind of art has exhausted itself and is no longer relevant. And they will add that, good as the paintings produced today by such contemporary ''old masters'' as Motherwell and de Kooning may be, they belong more to the immediate postwar period than to today.

I don't agree, just as I do not agree that any style is outmoded or irrelevant merely because its roots go back to an earlier period. Art just doesn't work that way. Styles may become stale or lifeless, or degenerate into pointless paint-splashings, but they do not cease to be effective merely because they are no longer in fashion.

This is particularly true of the kind of art I'm discussing. It may not occupy center-stage as it once did, but it is still responsible for some vital and extremely interesting art.

I enter in evidence the work of Manabu Mabe, a painter of Japanese extraction who moved to Brazil in 1934 at the age of 10, and who has achieved a modest international reputation during the past two decades for his passionately executed gestural paintings.

These are as immediate and direct as anything produced by the Abstract Expressionists or the great Japanese masters of calligraphy. In fact, one could even describe them as explosive, for they contain such concentrated energy that they often seem ''unleashed'' rather than painted by hand.

Their visual impact is extraordinary and as immediate as a whiplash. A yellow slash of paint hurls itself across a black void to connect with a slender white arabesque that meanders elegantly over a magenta field. A smear of vivid colors thunders across a sky-blue background, stops short at the painting's edge, and somersaults lazily downward to end up as a smudge of brilliant pink. Or a black slab of paint twists around, transforms itself into a deep blue, and spews out light blue flecks of paint against a blue-green sky.

But whatever form or color a painting takes, its effect is instantaneous. There is no dawdling or unnecessary detail. Except for a few areas of flat color , everything is dramatically in motion.

Now that's fine, but creative enthusiasm, rich color, and passionate paint-handling can only go so far. A painting, to be art, also needs focus, structure, and a frame of reference.

I suspect that most of those who dismiss Mabe's work fault it at precisely this point. Where, they ask, is his frame of reference? To what deeper or larger realities than sensation or effectiveness do these painterly pyrotechnics refer? What differentiates these splashings from those made by young children or an adult tossing paint at a canvas at random? But mostly, they want to know why these daubings and dashings rate as art.

Perhaps we should compare a dozen or so of Mabe's paintings with an equal number produced by children or by adults merely hurling paint. If we did, we'd find the differences startling and dramatic, and roughly parallel to the differences encountered between children tossing a baseball among themselves and a professional ballplayer hitting one home run after another.

But this, of course, proves very little, and what it does prove has more to do with effectiveness and painterly excitement than with art. For that we must study these paintings more closely, and return to them as often as possible.

The four basic ingredients of Mabe's art are passion, drama, risk, and sensibility. Taken together, they represent an artist of exceptional sensibility whose paintings embody and reenact the high dramas of passion against passivity, movement against inertia, and life against death. And do so with the risk-filled flair of an acrobat somersaulting high in the air toward his partner.

This drama is made all the more poignant by Mabe's rich and sensuous color. It is so vital and glowing, so cracklingly alive, that it magnifies and illuminates the beauty and value of the life force that sparkles and dashes about so exuberantly on his canvases. The result is a celebration of life and living that can be hung on a wall and experienced over and over again. In this Mabe is a real master. His paintings may at first appear brassy, formless, and of little importance. But they have the ability to retain their power and effectiveness long after our first encounter with them - and even to seem more remarkable and significant the second and third time around.

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