An Artist Unafraid to Go His Own Way

HORST JANSSEN is one of the growing number of outstanding contemporary artists who cherish their creative independence. He belongs to no school or movement, owes allegiance to no master, and ignores all fads and fashions. He simply goes his own way, producing the watercolors, prints, and drawings that embody and convey his independent spirit. Fame has come - and deservedly so - for these works on paper. Like many German artists before him, he is primarily a draftsman, a master of line and wash, whose subjects reflect almost the entire spectrum of human experience. He can be precise - witness the clarity and firmness of the hands in his portrait drawings - or ``loose'' and sketchy. But whatever he does, it bears the stamp of a genuine master.

The mastery is evident in all 41 of the images currently on view at the Claude Bernard Gallery here. Each, whether carefully delineated or rapidly dashed-off, demonstrates the kind of authority only a handful of artists in any generation achieve. Best of all, he makes no issue of it, but uses this authority merely to lend credence to whatever point he wishes to make.

And yet, it's not difficult to imagine someone walking into the gallery, finding little of interest, and leaving with a grumble about ``silly scribblings.'' That individual would probably also have left the Daverio Gallery's recent show of work by the late 20th-century Italian master Giorgio Morandi muttering about ``childish drawing.''

The comparison with Morandi, while perhaps a bit surprising (Janssen is a wild-and-wooly romantic while Morandi was a classicist to the core) is not all that far-fetched. Janssen often draws extravagant-looking heads, imaginary landscapes, fanciful creatures, and grotesque animals and birds, whereas Morandi painted the same little bottles over and over again. And yet they share one central thing: the profound conviction that art comes from deep within and that its primary function is to probe beneath surface appearances for clues about the meaning and significance of life.

This conviction is apparent in the overall tone of Janssen's watercolors and drawings, their seriousness, and the economy of their means. Most of all, it is felt in Janssen's extraordinary creative sensibility.

That sensibility bubbles up all over: in the way, for instance, that he combines pure, freely sketched lines with broadly brushed washes of delicate color to produce effects that define forms and suggest highly active life.

His watercolor drawings of skeletal birds - particularly ``For Japanese Only'' - are minor masterpieces of draftsmanship, which demonstrate stunningly how observation and intuition can combine to create images that are ``real' and imaginary at the same time. And when it comes to depicting the actuality and liveliness of small creatures, no one today can top him. This can best be seen in his two watercolor drawings of shellfish, ``Mahlau is Alive'' and ``Mahlau Twitches.'' The first, in fact, is the best thing in the show.

Portrait studies, however, dominate the exhibition, in number if not quality. Several are studies of Janssen himself, generally looking considerably older than his years (he was born in 1929), and sketched with the kind of familiarity one has with objects or places one has seen thousands of times.

One self-portrait, executed in 1989 in pastel and pencil, is especially fascinating for its imaginative combination of lines and smudges which creates an impression of elegance quite out of keeping with the face itself. And another, rapidly dashed off in blues and grays with two or three earth-colored washes, shows the less purely linear side of Janssen's creative personality.

Also outstanding are several imaginative free-form compositions, (two in color), which include references to mountains, rock formations, skulls, ships, castle-like structures, and other objects. These are the most inventive things on view - and the most provocative.

The most charming piece is a letter from the artist, written and drawn in 1986. The image portion, occupying the top half of a sheet of paper, consists of a flurry of washes and a few scratchy lines. They come together to form what appears to be a very young bird.

Whether it was intended to be a bird isn't important. Janssen was able to create an image that evokes the characteristics of very young and vulnerable creatures, without including anything sufficiently specific to identify what kind of creature it is. For me, it's a freshly hatched bird, possibly a sparrow. For someone else it could be a newly born furry animal. But it really doesn't matter. The image stands as it is - and for the reason that what Janssen has caught is a tiny fragment of life itself.

At the Claude Bernard Gallery, 33 East 74th Street, through May 12.

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