A painter who knows when to stop

ONE of the most difficult - but also one of the most important - things an artist must learn is when to leave well enough alone. The temptation is to push a picture or a piece of sculpture just a bit further, in effect adding unnecessary details, colors, or textures, or overloading the original form or idea with too much evidence of technical skill. The danger at such times is to forget that art's primary function is to communicate an intuition, emotion, or idea, not to celebrate an artist's performance. True talent knows when to stop, when to stand back and permit the viewer to complete the creative act within the context of his or her own sensibilities and experience. Art, after all, is a dialogue, not a lecture. The greater the art, in fact, the more confrontational and open-ended that dialogue will be - and the more the viewer will be required to participate in it.

Thus, a late Rembrandt self-portrait is never ``finished,'' never final, but keeps right on challenging us to probe deeper and more thoughtfully into our inner resources in order to grasp its meaning. The same holds true of the works of Michelangelo, Giotto, Leonardo, and all the other greats of art history.

Understatement and suggestiveness are of particular importance in art that is romantic or mystical, or that hints at realities not discernible to the naked eye. The watercolors of Joseph Turner, the oils of Caspar David Friedrich, and the pastels of Odilon Redon, for instance, would lose much of their effectiveness, and almost all of their significance, were we to sense that they are only about sunsets, mountain vistas, and floral bouquets.

The fact that they have deeper meanings, that they are also about ineffable and fugitive feelings and intimations, that they even raise subtle questions about the quality and worth of human existence, is communicated to us almost exclusively by the manner in which each of these artists strikes a highly personal and provocative balance between what he actually shows us and what he implies.

It is crucial, of course, that the viewer be alert to these hidden dimensions, or he or she might miss the artist's point entirely - a situation that occurs all too often with work that is either startlingly ``new,'' or that speaks gently and quietly from within a modest format. The work of Morris Graves, for instance, is still occasionally misinterpreted by today's younger critics and curators, who confuse his formal and thematic modesty with lack of power and significance.

That was not the case during the early 1940s, when his small, emotionally charged images of birds, small animals, trees, and other growing things took the American art world by storm. At that time, and for a number of years afterward, such works as ``Bird Singing in the Moonlight,'' ``Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye,'' and ``Joyous Young Pine'' were recognized by everyone from Jackson Pollock to Clement Greenberg for what they were: profoundly original symbolic embodiments of mystical states and intuitions.

For almost two decades, Graves was one of America's most famous and best-loved painters, someone everyone agreed would end up in the art history books. But then, times and fashions changed, and his modest, quietly introspective kind of art was replaced - at least in the eyes of the critics - by work that was huge and aggressive, or that tended to glorify pop culture.

Throughout that period, however, he retained the respect of serious art lovers and art professionals, who saw to it that his work found its way into major museum collections, and that his contributions to mid-20th-century American art were not forgotten. Their efforts were rewarded in 1983 by the art world's favorable reaction to Graves' 50-year retrospective, which opened at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and then traveled to five other museums throughout the United States. Not only was the exhibition well received by most art professionals, but also it introduced Graves's art and vision to a brand new generation of art lovers.

Interestingly enough, while the majority of his more recent admirers responded most favorably to the stark, searing, penetrating pictures of the late 1930s and '40s, they also took particular delight in a series of less dramatic and more charmingly informal studies of small shore birds he produced during that period.

These perky little creatures scurry about at the edge of the ocean, brace themselves against the incoming tide, or stare out to sea in a manner that is altogether engaging but totally devoid of coyness or sentimentality. In ``Sanderling'' we see one of them standing all by itself and looking somewhat bewildered next to the shoreline, which is represented by a few casually applied strokes of paint.

Everything in this picture, in fact, is freely and suggestively rendered. Nothing has been carried beyond the dimension of a sketch. And yet, because Graves knew his subject well and knew exactly how he wanted to present it - but mostly because he knew when to leave well enough alone - he has given us a moving glimpse into what it's like to be very small, alone, and confronted by something huge and mysterious.

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