The painter and the package

Art often depends as much on what is left out as on what is put in. And often makes its point by understatement or suggestion. Such art directs our attention to the fugitive and the not fully realized. It gives voice, form, and credibility to values, qualities, and ideals without defining or describing them.

It induces the viewer to sense and to become aware of particularly subtle and elusive aspects and dimensions of reality. These can be formal or thematic, relate to techniques or to ideas. But whatever, such art treats the viewer with respect, and assumes that he or she has the intelligence, sensibility, and imagination needed to grasp and to ''complete'' what the artist has merely suggested.

Such participation between artist and viewer is actual, not imaginary. Anyone deeply and sympathetically involved with a Cezanne still life or landscape, for instance, will gradually fall into step with Cezanne's creative processes and, before long, will find his or her sensibilities and perceptions growing and expanding to meet and to match Cezanne's.

This is equally true, although on a somewhat lower level, of work by less important and monumental figures.

But, whatever its scope and depth, this experience is a magical moment, for it has permitted one human being to alert another to a truth, a quality, a nuance of meaning, or ''merely'' to a deeper appreciation of life.

A work of art is more than an object, a thing entirely unto itself. In many ways, and to varying degrees, it is like a seed sent out to enter and to germinate within the viewer's deepest levels of consciousness. Its beauty and artistry, its radiant colors and provocative designs exist, not as ends in themselves, but as means first to catch the viewer's attention, and then to be permitted entrance into those deeper and more significant levels.

True art is one of life's vital agents, not a contrivance cooked up simply to enchant our senses. It feeds and nourishes the human spirit, and gives it the opportunity to glimpse greater dimensions of being.

To do so, however, it must first attract human sensibilities, and alert them to what it can do. If it presents itself as a finished and perfect thing, as merely a beautiful and exquisitely crafted object, it will forever remain merely a thing and will never truly engage us.

It is the humanity within a work of art that calls out to us and causes us to want to respond to it. It doesn't, however, have to depict anything specifically human as long as it represents and conveys human truths and feelings and is directed toward human goals. There must be something imperfect and vulnerable about it, or the viewer will have no desire to engage it. A diamond, after all, is not a work of art - no matter how beautiful and perfect it might be. It is too coolly nonhuman. And the same is true of a perfect circle, a flower, or the color blue.

All of these, however, can become vital components of a work of art if a sensitive individual uses them in his or her attempt to reach out to other individuals through art. It all depends on the manner of their artistic transformation. A freshly picked flower in a vase, for instance, is just a flower. Once it is painted by an artist, however, it also becomes the transmitter of something human. And if such an artist as Odilon Redon adds a few more flowers and paints them as a bouquet, the painting that results will embody and radiate with one man's deepest feelings about the poignant beauty of human life.

It is not, however, easy to produce art of significance - or even art that will completely satisfy the artist. The spirit may be willing but the talent and determination weak. The person who can find or fashion the appropriate form for what demands to be released or communicated as art, is fortunate indeed. For most humans, trying to produce art is like trying to empty a lake into a quart container or like catching enough fireflies to light up a lawn.

In art, it's not the depth or range of the artist's feelings that counts, it's the artist's ability to get them across to the viewer. In short, communication is vital, and empathy is a crucial key.

Few American artists understood this as well as Grant Wood. Although possessed of only a modest talent and limited by a narrow and somewhat rigid perception of art, he yet managed to make himself famous and to produce American Gothic, one of the best and most important American paintings of this century.

He did it by defining his goals very precisely and by learning how to ''package'' as art what he wanted to say with maximum effectiveness. The result, while often dry and mannered, occasionally did produce winners in the form of such a painting as Spring Turning, and such prints as July Fourteenth and January.

January, in particular, shows Wood at top form. It's a near-perfect image that pits the warmth of a small living creature against the cold and bitter desolation of winter. And yet, while this drama between warmth and cold, between life and death, is the subject of this print, none of the protagonists are visible.

We are forced to make do with evidence of their existence in the form of the rabbit tracks and the print's brutally bleak atmosphere.

And yet, isn't that enough? Isn't the drama all the more touching and effective because we must read something into this print? Doesn't our concern for and curiosity about the rabbit's safety and whereabouts give this work added depth? And doesn't that added depth transform this otherwise bleak picture of snow-covered corn shocks and a few rabbit tracks into a deeply moving metaphor for earthly existence?

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