Profound or provincial, American realism searches for meaning

FOR a few years after World War II, American painting stumbled about looking for its bearings. Regionalism was dead, as was social-action painting, and the few independent voices still around from prewar days lacked the will or the clout to redirect American art. Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, Reginald Marsh, and a number of others continued on, unaffected by all the turmoil around them, and the few newcomers, such as Jack Levine, Morris Graves, and Hyman Bloom, who might have sparked an American Renaissance, were either too private or not abstract enough to capture the fancy of the importan t tastemakers.

Abstract Expressionism solved the problem by assuming command and bringing the center of world art from Paris to New York. While that may have been good news to those who accepted the new movement, it was close to the kiss of death for those who did not.

Except for a handful of established independents -- and even those artists suffered to a degree for a while -- anyone who refused to climb on the bandwagon of the Abstract Expressionists was doomed to near-oblivion as the 1950s began.

Among those most affected by this wave of art-world dogma was a young painter by the name of Andrew Wyeth, who had first made a name for himself in 1937 as a watercolorist and who had, by the early 1950s, established himself as the most popular of all American painters and the most visible exponent of nonmodernism in the United States.

All this, of course, did not sit well with those who felt that everything representational in art was dangerously reactionary, and that popularity was the ultimate proof of artistic mediocrity. If Wyeth was mentioned at all in the critical literature of the postwar years, it was to be dismissed as irrelevant or as nothing more than talented illustration.

In fact, he was then, and he continues to be now, one of America's very best artists, and one of its most committed.

His problem over the years has been as much one of image as of substance, for he has been so undeviatingly realistic and ``rural'' in his work that it has been easy for urban critics to dismiss him out of hand as a latter-day Yankee provincial. In that, they could not have been more mistaken. By focusing on his uncanny ability to reproduce the complex appearances of nature and on his mildly melancholy, subtly underplayed ``country'' themes, they have missed the major point of his art: that it exists to project the artist's profound respect for what physical appearance cloaks, evokes, or can imply.

Realism, for Wyeth, has always been a means, not an end -- a method of conveying subtle and often troubling questions about mortality and alienation, and of projecting intuitions about order, virtue, character, integrity, and the reasons for human existence. As a result, he stands dramatically apart from most of his non-urban contemporaries, the majority of whom are more inclined to wholeheartedly celebrate nature's wonders than to engage and redirect them in a profoundly personal search for meaning.

Fairfield Porter, on the other hand, was more concerned with purely painterly and coloristic issues. His sparingly composed and luminously colored figure studies, landscapes, and still lifes were not so much statements about life as exquisitely fashioned feasts of pure painting, served up by someone who refused to go along with the prevailing trends and who ended up as one of the first to present young Americans with a viable alternative to Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism.

Larry Rivers was another who struck off on his own, and who not only produced a few outstanding pictures but served as an example to others wanting to break away from the artistic mainstream as well. The 1958-65 period, in fact, produced a cluster of young independents eager to try their hand at the human figure or with precise representations of nature. Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Jack Beal, Neil Welliver, Red Grooms, and Alfred Leslie were among the first to reject purely modernist goals, and they wer e followed rather quickly by even younger painters eager to establish careers within a fully representational context.

No one of that generation, however, put more energy, focus, and determination into the depiction of the human figure than Philip Pearlstein, and no one succeeded quite as spectacularly as he. His large, tightly designed compositions in which one or two nudes sit on chairs or sprawl upon richly decorated carpets have become a mainstay of recent exhibitions, both here and abroad. It may be true that it is easier to respect than to like his paintings, but there can be absolutely no doubt that he is one of today's major ``realist'' voices. A few of the other older independents haven't wavered, either. Will Barnett continues in his gently romantic fashion, as indeed do Morris Graves, Robert Vickrey, and George Tooker. Joyce Treiman becomes more powerful every year; John Wilde never ceases to amaze with his diminutive fantasies; and Darrel Austin remains as magical as ever.

It is among the younger realists, however, that some of the most determined and clearly thought-through deviations from modernism are taking place. William Beckman, Alan Magee, and Peter Poskas bring precise draftsmanship and structural finesse to bear in paintings that may look like straight transcriptions of nature, but are actually as shrewdly designed as any of Leger's or Gris's abstractions.

Gregory Gillespie, William Bailey, and Brooks Anderson tackle landscapes as though no one had ever painted them before. Gregory Paquette fashions images with pencil and charcoal that challenge those of Sheeler; Charles Moser monumentalizes ordinary-looking landscape elements; and Idelle Weber transforms flowers into major pictorial statements.

No list of recent independents would be complete without the names of Joseph Raffael, Jerome Witkin, Robert Birmelin, Joan Brown, Melissa Miller, and Tino Zago, each of whom is making a very special contribution to today's art.

Neither would it be fair to exclude the category of contemporary Western or ``cowboy'' painting -- difficult as it may be for some to take it altogether seriously. Regardless of what one may think of the works of James Bama, for instance, no one can deny their technical sophistication and extraordinary pictorial effectiveness.

Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.

Second of two parts. The first appeared yesterday.

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