The painter in the garden

Good flower painters are a deceptive lot. When they are working they generally have things on their minds other than tulips or daffodils or the kinds of soil best suited for growing roses. It's much more likely they are concentrating on color relationships, on how most effectively to relate a particular blue to a delicate green and a subtle pink, or on how to enrich a cluster of deep reds and purples without overdoing it.

Such individuals may indeed love flowers, and may even be experts on their growth and care. But unless they are scientific illustrators depicting a particular gardenia or sweet pea, their function as artists will draw their attention elsewhere.

It will have to, because merely painting pretty pictures of flowers - or of puppy dogs, kittens, and sunsets - is enough to ruin a serious artist's reputation. Such work is all too effortless and too calculated to achieve a sympathetic response. There's no reason, of course, why pretty flowers and sad-eyed puppies cannot be art, but the art world prejudice against such subjects is so intense that the artist who attempts to paint them must have something else up his or her sleeve.

What that ''something'' is can vary. The only requirement is that it be more substantial than the prettiness of flowers or the adorableness of young animals. That it attempt more than to seduce the viewer in the easiest and quickest way.

Many excellent artists, from Velazquez and Manet to Demuth and O'Keeffe, transformed flowers into art. And just as many others produced pictures of young animals that are both charming and powerfully done. There are magnificent sunsets by Altdorfer, Turner, and Friedrich, to say nothing of numerous excellent studies of the same subject sketched in oils by members of the Hudson River School.

Flowers, in particular, serve many purposes in art. They can be an excuse for rich color or for the subtle or dramatic play of a few bright colors against a neutral background. They can induce fancy brushwork or add a touch of brilliance to an otherwise somber composition. But, probably most important, they can inspire images of great emotional and spiritual depth and aid in the creation of works that combine exquisite detail with monumental form.

Odilon Redon is the outstanding example. Although his florals are modest in size and depict nothing more exceptional than bouquets of flowers stuck in vases , they have won a special place in the affections of those who view painting more in the light of poetry than of form. I know of no other paintings that play joy against sorrow, life against death, the moment against eternity, as simply and as radiantly as Redon's florals.

No one before him and no one since has used flowers in quite that way. I have known some of Redon's florals for over 40 years. They are so delicate, and yet so persistently life-enhancing, that, were I to be exiled into outer space tomorrow, I'd insist on taking one along.

Idelle Weber is another artist for whom flowers serve larger ends, only with her the emphasis is on the formal and the conceptual rather than on the emotional. There is neither sentiment nor romanticism in her often large and always bold and direct canvases, and neither are there any indications that deeper meanings lurk beneath her crisp, colorful, and carefully articulated surfaces.

Her approach is cool and precise and, in her own words, ''photo-generated.'' Although she uses photographs to help define the scope of her work and to clarify and validate its many details, she sees the camera primarily as a set of ''super-eyes'' taking notes and gathering visual information. It is obvious from the sensuous painterliness of her pictures that photography is a springboard for her art, and not the source of its identity or character.

Her recent flower paintings are impressive both for their coloristic richness and their formal severity. In them, passion and control are kept in almost perfect balance, and pictorial effectiveness is achieved by playing dozens of smallish color pulsations against a dominant, dramatically geometric form.

Color wins out, however, by just enough to make her canvases resonate with life, and to cause even her very largest images to seem more informal than they actually are.

''Color Lesson IV'' is a diptych a little over 7 feet high and roughly 10 feet wide. Its right and left panels are mirror images of each other, although enough subtle variations exist to prevent precise repetition. The colors tend toward the dark and somber, with deep greens, blues, and blacks acting as backdrop to clusters of high-keyed, flamelike areas of aggressive color.

It and Weber's other paintings are powerful, direct, and frequently monumental, almost the exact opposite of Redon's fragile, inwardly glowing pastels. And yet I'd like to see them displayed together, for both prove that, in the right hands, flowers can indeed be the source of excellent art.

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