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'British art now': a joy to behold

"British Art Now," the Guggenheim Museum's current exhibition here of eight promising but little-known British artists, is a lively and stimulating show. It raises many questions as it sets to rest. Carefully screened and chosen over a two-year period of research and travel by Diane Waldman, the museum's curator of exhibitions, this show is a personal a statement as any of the works included in it.

And that is how it should be, for this was not intended to be a true cross-section of contemporary British art, but rather a selection of individual artists of exceptional merit linked more by quality of achievement and by actual nationality than by how representative they were of national schools.

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Because of the small number of artists chosen, it should come as no surprise -- even in this day and age -- that no figurative paintings or sculptures were included. Nor that the show's emphasis is on innovation and on the questioning of conventional and traditional modes of expression. This is, after all, an exhibition triggered by the recent resurgence of British art. And it is bound to reflect the imaginative and exploratory attitudes that brought it about.

There is no flash-in-the-pan quality about any of the artists chosen. Each will obviously be around for a long time. And it is this sense of staying power rather than brilliance or profundity which comes across. These are quietly innovative and original voices, sustainers and extenders of tradition, rather than flag- waving revolutionaries or seers.

By American standards the innovative aspects of this show are mild, discrete, and more inclined toward gentle probing than full frontal assault. But then discretion has generally been the British policy toward the visual arts. Polite and gentlemanly rather than overtly revolutionary or frontier-minded, they have preferred to leave the dramatic risks and the bombast to others.There have been extraordinary geniuses like Constable and Turner, but the tradition itself has been cautious and genteel.

British art has tended to humanize the formalistic advances made by artists of other countries. The art of Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Graham Sutherland spring to mind. And that tradition is very much alive in this show. Stylistic differences apart, there is a family resemblance between these older artists and the younger ones represented here in attitude and manner. While several of the latter may claim formal and spiritual descent from certain aspects of recent American art, they all have retained the age-old British feeling for integrity and good form. There is an intactnessm about every one of them which is a joy to behold.

And that is all the more remarkable considering the conditions under which British artists must live and work. It is the rare one who manages to make any kind of paying career out of his art. There is no star system as Americans know it -- which may be all to the good -- but neither is there much private collecting of contemporary art, most of the collecting being done by the government through its arts councils and state-supported museums.

I found a great deal to admire and to enjoy in this exhibition, beginning with the lyrically witty sculpture of David Nash. After fleeing London in 1967 for economic reasons, Nash bought and now works in a century-old miner's chapel near the Welsh coast. Using wood cut from fallen trees -- he prefers not to cut down living ones -- he transforms these natural objects into sculpture suggested by the wood itself. His "Three Clams on a Rack," for instance, was inspired by cracks in wood. And in "Chorus Line" he took advantage of the way branches and split logs suggest human characteristics to create a witty proof of dancers.

Simple, original, and intuitive, nash's art engages us in an affectionate dialogue and draws us into a marvelous world of wit and paradox where everything could just as well be something else.

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I was also taken with Tim Head's slide projections studied with real objects and dominating small enclosed rooms. One's first reaction to these is one of disorientation. Is that ladder real or is it a part of the slide-projection? And why is that human figure standing there?

We are engaged, unsettled, and thus hopefully prepared to re-examine not only the nature of perception, but also the numerous clues and signals we accept as validating factors of that perception. I say "hopefully" because I'm not certain that the scope and nature of Head's intentions are altogether well- served by the size and shape of the rooms provided him. I would prefer to see his work more as a total environment and without the hustle and bustle of other viewers entering and leaving these enclosed rooms. His photographs like "Levity I," on the other hand, need no such qualifications.

Alan Green's "Four Vertical Reds, 1978," gets my vote as the most beautiful painting in the show. Consisting of four equal-sized red panels, it so establishes its self-sufficiency asm painting that even the most subtle shift in color or brushwork assumes monumental proportions. Impossible to photograph, and demanding the viewer's absolute attention, Green's art reflects a ruthless sensibility testing the limits to which particular colors can be pushed within a given shape and area without losing their identities as art.

The paintings of Hugh O'Donnell are intensely passionate and as finely adjusted as a Swiss watch. Colorful and direct, these works give the impression that they would explode were if not for the controls exercised by his exquisite set of formal checks and balances.

The others in the show are all accomplished artists in their own rights.

John Edwards, paints highly charged pictures characterized by inner tension and the imminent collision of brightly colored, sign- like forms. Keith Milow works with concrete and plaster on wood to create objects intended to question the nature of art and to heighten the conflict between object and illusion. Nicholas Pope creates totally abstract sculpture; and Simon Read who builds his own cameras based on the principles of the Renaissance camera obscura,m and produces sequential photographs withe them which reflect his interest in expanding our readings of visual reality.

Every one of them has something to say and says it well.

All in all, this is a well-chosen, informative, and stimulating show. Upon its closing in New York on March 9, it will travel to the University of Texas at Austin where it will be on view from July 6 through Aug. 17. Its final presentation will be at the Royal Academy in London from Oct. 18 through Dec. 14 .


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