Taking serenity seriously

IT'S a pleasure to report that lyrically expansive and frankly illusionistic landscape painting is slowly but surely making a comeback. Although some major museums seem unaware of this development -- or unwilling to take it seriously -- others have supported it by purchasing outstanding examples or staging exhibitions devoted to some of its leading figures. Much of the resistance to this kind of painting derives from the art world's long-held suspicion of work that is serene and uncomplicated and that partakes of none of modernism's ideals or attitudes. From the early days of the Fauves and Cubists to the recent Minimalists and Neo-Expressionists, 20th-century art has tended to be restless and explosive -- to be pursuing formalist visions. If its various movements weren't violently at odds with what preceded them, then its artists were trying to be more extreme or abstract than anyone who had painted before.

There were exceptions, of course. These ranged from Monet's late paintings of water lilies (it is difficult at times to remember that he lived until 1926) and the landscapes of southern France painted by Bonnard, Matisse, and Dufy to the studies of the great outdoors made by Burchfield, Hopper, and Wyeth. In every case, the beauty and vitality of the scene depicted overrode all purely formal considerations and led to the creation of some of this century's most effective pictures.

Even so, such work almost disappeared from the ``serious'' New York museum and gallery scene during the days of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Only Fairfield Porter and, a little later, Jane Freilicher, Neil Welliver, Herman Rose, and a handful of other well-known artists continued to work in this style and to be respected by art professionals for doing so. By the mid-1970s, however, the breakthrough was under way, and by 1980 large numbers of young landscape painters were producing excellent canvases and receiving at least some critical backing.

But as far as the dedicated modernists were concerned, none of the landscape painters deserved any recognition. So they were almost never included in exhibitions put on by the larger museums to introduce ``emerging'' artists. In addition, they were ignored by most critics and were seldom offered in important auctions. And when the Museum of Modern Art reopened last year, with a huge show widely publicized as a survey exhibition of contemporary art, none of them was represented.

That hasn't discouraged them, however. If anything, their number is growing, and the quality of their work is constantly improving. Some have become so good, in fact, that previously hostile dealers, critics, and curators are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore them, and have begun accepting one or two as their ``token'' landscape painters.

These artists still face one crucial obstacle: the ease with which their pictures can be understood and enjoyed. In today's art atmosphere, new work that isn't ``difficult'' or ``tough'' often is belittled. The same is true of paintings and sculpture that don't reflect an anxious or negative view of the world or that don't represent a formalist theory.

Although a lyrical and uncomplicated appreciation of nature's beauties and a positive attitude may still be somewhat suspect in today's art, the situation is beginning to improve. While it's true that Neo-Expressionism and the other modes of painting lumped under the Post-Modernist banner still dominate the art world, more attention is being paid to the new generation of landscape painters and to their radiant canvases.

Brooks Anderson is one of the most promising of these younger artists. Although still only 27 and a relative newcomer as a professional, he has already produced a number of remarkable landscapes. While these appear at first to be merely straightforward depictions of dramatic California scenery executed in a precisely delineated ``realistic'' style, upon closer examination they reveal themselves to be personal and mildly romantic interpretations of what the artist saw on his numerous painting expeditions along the West Coast.

Anderson's editing of physical reality is sensitive and shrewd and aims for maximum verisimilitude within a simple design. Although his images are extraordinarily illusionistic, and appear, in black and white reproductions, to be overly photographic, the works themselves are stamped with a uniquely painterly identity and presence. Only carefully conceived and lovingly executed paintings could transform the raw material of nature into such serene and subtly romantic pictorial projections of a young man's perceptions and feelings. And only formalist purists and dogmatic adherents of other kinds of expression would deny this mode of painting its right to be taken seriously as art.

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