Modernists who won't give up

The modernist tradition is alive and well - thanks to a number of talented younger artists who've kept the faith despite persistent claims that modernism is dead, that its tenets are no longer valid, and that its ideals are as much beside the point today as those of Constable or Turner.

These artists have resisted the new dogma that insists the 1980s are strictly ''post-modern,'' and that today's art must reflect that fact by turning its back on what art had held most dear from the early 1870s to the late 1970s.

It's been fascinating - if a bit shocking - to see how quickly ''post-modernism'' caught on, and how enthusiastically modernism's values and ideals were systematically attacked and violated.

In some ways it was understandable. The art of the previous two decades, in particular, had been extremely rigid and formal, and, by and large, those who had judged that period's art had been narrowly doctrinaire. Even so, it was a shock to see so many younger artists pursuing artistic virtue through the systematic violation of what the older generations had respected and believed in.

Unlike most, if not all, previous art movements which had affirmed new ideas, post-modernism seemed more ''anti'' than ''pro.'' Its advocates claimed it had to be that way to break the tight grip the formal purists had had over art in recent years. One even went so far as to compare post-modernism to an icebreaker smashing through the Arctic ice to rescue a stranded ship.

Be that as it may, a new and considerably more caustic and iconoclastic element than we had seen in a long time has entered the art world. It is here to stay, and already it has sown some of the seeds of its tradition. Painterly and three-dimensional images and devices that shocked and appalled us three or four years ago no longer do so; they are, in fact, beginning to seem halfway attractive.

This is due partly to increasing familiarity and partly to the fact that the best of the post-modernists are beginning to accept some of the standards and values against which they rebelled so dramatically such a short time ago. They are, as a result, beginning to produce work that may actually end up being absorbed within the modernist tradition.

The irony in this hasn't escaped many of those artists whose art continued to reflect modernist values and ideals. Such established artists as Stella, LeWitt, Frankenthaler, Pepper, and Dine, to name only a few, remain remarkably unaffected by post-modernism's attempts to dethrone them. And much the same can be said of those lesser-known artists who remained true to their ideals despite powerful pressures to conform to the ''new.''

Holding one's own in the art world is never easy, even during the best of times, and it is painfully difficult whenever a new fashion in art makes its appearance. Being good isn't enough to ensure professional survival at a time when styles and values change. One must be firmly established or successful, have the backing of a truly dedicated dealer, or be ''just plain lucky.'' An artist lacking any or all of these - and it makes no difference if he or she has been a practicing professional for 20 years - can easily end up out in the cold.

It is extremely gratifying, therefore, to see artists resisting fashion in order to follow their own vision. And even more gratifying to see such artists grow deeper and more accomplished while doing so.

Among the younger artists of whom this is true is Rebecca Welz. I first became aware of her work in 1979, when she was painting large canvases that combined free-flowing washes with sensitively positioned geometric forms. Although still somewhat tentative, these paintings projected a lively sense of expectancy, and a feeling that a particularly fine sensibility was hard at work. It takes a special knack, after all, to combine spontaneously achieved color washes and precisely defined geometric shapes - in effect, to play the intentional against the accidental. That she managed to do so with apparent ease , while also suggesting that these shapes had deeper, more interior meanings, made me very curious to see what direction her future work would take.

Interestingly enough, she soon began to experiment with paint on Plexiglas, using that material first as a painting surface, and then as the basis for three-dimensional work. These sculptural pieces were fashioned by bending, sanding, and painting shaped pieces of Plexiglas, and then either suspending them or leaning them against a wall. Although quite small, these early pieces already had the gently rhythmic and softly translucent qualities that have made her more recent works so effective.

''Star Festival of Irrumagawa'' and ''Arch'' are very large constructions she exhibited in 1982 and '83 respectively. Both are so constructed as to permit the viewer to walk around their individual units, and both radiate a remarkably gentle and lyrical quality despite their monumental size.

That lyrical quality is evident in everything Welz produces. Her work never insists, never intrudes. Whatever point it makes is made subtly and discreetly and, one senses, with politeness and patience.

Although her constructions are extremely handsome, attractiveness is not what they really are about. I'm not even certain that their identities are primarily formal or visual - at least, their formal and visual aspects are not what I remember most vividly about them. I leave them, rather, with the distinct impression that they are ''about'' such things as reconciliation and harmony, and that their ultimate purpose is to serve as islands of serenity in a world otherwise gone quite mad.

That, at least, is how her work affects me. No matter how hard I try, I cannot see her constructions as things, as attractive objects to be admired. Despite all efforts to view them aesthetically, they always have an ethical effect on me and convince me that their real objective is to civilize those who view and experience them.

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