One person's doodle may very well be another person's work of art. It all depends on who does it, and to what purpose it eventually will be put. Some of the world's greatest art started out as little more than doodles, as tiny ''thumbnail sketches'' that were the seeds of later paintings, sculptures, prints, and more finished drawings. These often covered several sheets of paper and gave only the barest indication of image or form.
There are sheets of drawings by Durer, in particular, that include what can only be described as doodles. And the same is true of work by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rubens, and Picasso. In each case the artist was obviously relaxed and musing, for the sketch seems to have a life and a will of its own. Its lines wander about, move in and out in ways that barely resemble the lines in the professional work these artists produced.
It apparently never occurred to the Old Master, however, to turn the most freely independent, the most ''abstract'' of these ''doodles'' into finished works of art. No one in their day would have perceived them as art, for one thing, and neither would they have helped these artists articulate and communicate what they did view as the real issues of art. It wasn't until modernism came upon the scene, and artists began to fashion art bearing little or no resemblance to the physical world, that such things as doodles, splashes of paint, geometric forms, and pieces of wire and tin became legitimate sources for works of art.
Surrealism, in particular, took the doodle to heart, primarily because it didn't see it as a playfully innocent device but as a highly charged clue to a person's inner feelings, fears, dreams, and hopes. Since Surrealism's main objective was the freeing and articulation of these dimensions of human reality, it welcomed any and all devices that would aid it in its task.
Arp, Ernst, Klee, Tanguy, Masson, and Man Ray all fashioned serious work from what would previously have been dismissed as mere doodles. Miro actually produced major paintings and prints that resemble doodles more than anything else. And Dali, although he worked in a much more representational manner, also depended on free-association sketches for ideas.
It was, in short, the thing to do if one was a modernist during the 1920s and '30s - and even if one could not be so defined. Thomas Hart Benton, for instance , often based his complex compositions on linear ''doodles,'' and Reginald Marsh and John Steuart Curry produced many tiny thumbnail sketches that are little more than doodles.
The trick, of course, lay in trusting what appeared on paper in this manner, and in knowing what to do with it. A great deal of Miro's quality and importance stems from the fact that he had direct and immediate access to this source of ''unconscious'' information, and that he trusted his intuitions and sensibilities while they transposed it into art. This is particularly important, since it is much too easy to turn something exciting that appears as if by magic into a cold and empty design. Kandinsky, for instance, never quite knew what to do with the extraordinary painterly raw material that erupted onto his canvases between 1909 and 1913, and so subsequently packaged it too neatly and rigidly as an exotic form of decoration.
That was not the case, however, with Arshile Gorky (1904-48), who began as a passionate disciple of Cezanne and Picasso and ended up laying much of the groundwork for what would later be known as Abstract Expressionism. His middle- and late-period paintings and drawings illustrate perfectly how ''doodles'' can be transformed into art. A few of his late works, as a matter of fact, prove conclusively that ''doodles'' can indeed be major art.
In countless numbers of his later sketches and drawings, Gorky induced his deepest and most private inner feelings and realities to surface with only a minimum of conscious control. One senses, in looking at these works, that his hand moved freely over the paper in direct response to clear and intense impulses from within, and that he delighted in seeing them take form as loops, squiggles, shapes, textures, and tones.
Significantly, he could also do this with color and paint, even when working with images transferred from paper onto canvas and then worked up as final statements. And he could do so because he felt free to improvise, to alter the original sketch at the behest of fresher and more insistent inner promptings.
Particularly instructive are the carefully finished, dramatically black-and-white ink drawings he made in 1931 and 1932 while still somewhat under the influence of Picasso, Masson, and Miro. It is obvious, however, that these influences were now fully integrated, and that his future work would henceforth be entirely his own.
Like Pollock and de Kooning, however, Gorky wasn't willing to ''explode,'' to allow his creative intuitions free rein until he was certain his art stood on solid ground. Until his personal freedom to fully express himself meshed with the larger cultural needs of his time and place.
This was even more true of Miro, whose ''doodles'' evolved into some of the most significant and beautiful work of the 20th century. His ability to plumb the very depths of his inner being, and then to reassemble the forms, colors, and lines that emerged into delightful life-enhancing pictorial statements is legendary. No one else in this century has been both as professional as he, and, barring only Picasso, no one else has had as great an influence.