A poetic observer of the street

IN the act of writing, I choose between putting in more and more for the sake of richness, and leaving things out, for the sake of elegance and simplicity. Artists deal with the same conflict; the painter Raymond Saunders has an exquisite sense of design, which he uses to work with the seemingly random clutter found in city streets. Saunders likes to attach discarded objects to the canvas. He uses picture postcards, children's toys, crayons, and building blocks, printed illustrations, checkerboards, paintbrushes, and even old wooden doors. An enormous variety of objects come together in the rectangle of a single painting.

At the same time there is nothing at all slovenly about the way Saunders arranges those diverse elements. A pictorial motif he might have found in the street - the central image of ``Celeste Age 5 Invited Me to Tea'' is a hopscotch diagram - comes out looking elegant as well as childlike.

As a hopscotch diagram it is merely one more example of urban profusion. For the artist, or for a viewer with a strong sense of abstract form, the curves of its vertical lines belong to the same family as the curve made by the long stem of a flower. (Saunders has actually painted flowers with long stems.) Although hopscotch diagrams and flowers occur in everyday reality, Saunders is to a considerable extent an abstract artist who makes beautiful forms out of his experiences.

For many artists who use cast-off objects in their work, the intention is at least in part to ridicule advertising or newspaper photographs or the consumer society. Saunders, by contrast, appears to be fond of the objects and images he uses. As an artist he is remarkably accepting and optimistic about what his experience has brought him.

In life he has not always been equally happy. For a black child in Pittsburgh, where Saunders was born in 1934, many doors were closed. He has written that ``as a result of the limitations of American society back then and still now ... being an artist was the freest thing I could be.''

His teachers recognized his talent, but landlords were not eager to rent him an apartment. ``There was a lot that hurt, and that made me feel real pain by being black in America,'' he has said. ``I could win prizes, but as soon as I saw the reaction [to the fact] that I was black, I realized that art wasn't sacred, either.''

Since his student years he has managed to transcend those feelings, and his work may be seen as a record of individual development rather than an act of political protest on behalf of a group. ``The important thing about doing art,'' he says, ``is that I also live, and the more I bring into myself, the more I have a desire and need to translate it into something.''

Saunders is an inveterate traveler. His art refers to things and people seen in Europe, North Africa, and Latin America, but also in Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and northern California, where he has spent much of his adult life. Everyday America figures prominently in his work, together with memories of faraway places.

He is above all a poetic observer of the street. Asked about the use of childlike writing and drawing in his work, he says, ``Some of that is me, playing. Some I find, like everything else, on the street, blowing around. It's all tied into memories.''

For Saunders, a museum is perhaps a special kind of street, and his work incorporates memories of high art as well as his childhood and his travels. He has done a series based on Italian Renaissance portrait paintings, and if he does not directly imitate such living artists as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, he does use ideas they pioneered.

Although he has won his share of honors - a Prix de Rome and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others - he has never become fashionable. His work is likable and even seductive, but in the end it reflects a private quest for knowledge and experience.

``The artist is trying to make magic,'' he once told an interviewer. ``He or she has the need of something to pass through them and become something else. ... In the struggle is the desire to know oneself, and it takes the form of art.''

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