THERE'S no getting around it, ``beautiful'' or pleasurable painting remains out of favor today, while work that is ``tough'' and challenging is apt to be highly regarded. But then, to a certain extent, that has always been the case. Americans in particular - probably because of our Puritan forefathers - have generally had a difficult time with art designed primarily to give pleasure or to celebrate the good things in life. For art to have a significant place in our society, it had to be serious or uplifting, or to portray individuals whose high character would inspire the young. We expected our art to be realistic, to reflect a no-nonsense attitude, and to show evidence of skill and hard work. Any indication of frivolity or of beauty for its own sake made it immediately suspect, and that was doubly true if the subject was a lovely young woman or a scene depicting ``trivial'' pursuits.
This belief that art must be solemn and high-minded is as strong as ever today. True enough, the Impressionists and such painters as Redon, Bonnard, Matisse, Klee, and Mir'o taught us to appreciate the pleasures of color and paint, but our acceptance of these pleasures has always been somewhat conditioned by the fact that the artists who introduced them to us were foreign. Locally, we've preferred our artists to be tough and uncompromising - witness our past and current art-world heroes: Eakins and Homer; the painters of the Ashcan School; the Regionalists, Abstract Expressionists, Pop Artists, and Minimalists; and today, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle. Of all our major artists, only two have not been militantly ``serious'': Whistler, who has never really been viewed as an American, and Calder, whose mobiles are acceptable to many because they appear to celebrate Yankee ingenuity and wit.
Several other notable Americans have challenged this narrow prejudice, but only with temporary or not altogether first-rate success. Chase, Cassatt, and Sargent, for instance, produced a number of truly beautiful paintings that grace many of our finest museums, and Prendergast, Demuth, O'Keeffe, Avery, and Diebenkorn put at least as much emphasis on painterly quality as on other more ``important'' themes or ideas.
High on the list of today's artists who see nothing but virtue in sumptuousness and elegance is Robert Kushner, a painter/printmaker at mid-career whose colorful and richly textured ``decorative'' images employing paint, fabric, and assorted other materials are both extraordinarily sophisticated and beautiful.
Somewhat surprisingly for someone of his tastes and talents, he is generally also highly regarded by his fellow painters and by the art world in general. Much of this respect stems from his remarkable ability to fuse sparse, loosely rendered linear drawings with complex, extravagantly patterned designs to produce pictures as vibrant as any others being produced today. Most of it, however, derives from his continuing attempts to take decoration out of the realm of the merely pretty and to push it as far as it can go toward ``high'' art.
In this he has Matisse as his primary model and inspiration. And not only Matisse of the fashionable early and late period, but also of the less critically acclaimed Nice period.
Like Matisse, Kushner challenges the very idea that decoration is necessarily a lesser form of art. And he does so by permitting a complex work's entire identity to hinge on the interrelationships of a few flat, provocatively distorted shapes, a brilliant profusion of colors that in another's hands would appear garish or even vulgar, and a few strategically placed black or white lines. The resulting effect is one of breathtaking high-wire skill and daring, of great risks taken and near-impossible feats accomplished - but only just.
In purely formal matters, Kushner is one of the most audacious and original of living American painters, and all while seeming to be interested primarily in making large and pretty decorative images. He succeeds so well, in fact, in making the complex and difficult appear simple and pleasant that he is still insufficiently recognized in certain quarters. There, his art is perceived as little more than brilliant craft, as a clever synthesis of drawn and painted line and varicolored fabric pattern, as a kind of stitchery, in other words, of the sort one finds in almost every craft show.
But that's not surprising. After all, not so long ago, several of Matisse's most brilliantly simplified canvases were described as trivial and ``merely'' decorative, and his paper cutouts were dismissed as the infantile playthings of a very old man.
How far Kushner can go toward overcoming this resistance to art that is primarily pleasurable or that celebrates elegance and beauty above all else is difficult to say. He certainly is not alone in his efforts, as the paintings of Miriam Schapiro, Robert Natkin, Enrico Donati, Joyce Kozloff, and dozens of others testify. And yet, for various reasons, most particularly the quality of his art and his clear understanding of the difficulties involved, Kushner appears more likely than most to succeed.