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The many masks of modern art -- V

A little bit of the Sphinx lies deeply embedded within every work of art. Even in an etching of a solid black square. Even in sculptures of little wires that move in the wind, collages of paper, cloth and tin, mysteriously wrapped buildings, and tiny drawings of pebbles and feathers.

Art is everywhere and can find voice in anything. Its effect can last a fraction of second -- or reverberate forever. It can be as breathtakingly fugitive as the sudden glow of a firely during a moonless night or as majestic and impressive as a great mountain range. It can express something as privately lyrical as seeing a swallow swoop down to its nest, or as universally tragic and socially significant as the bombing and total destruction of a small Spanish town.

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There are small and very delicate watercolor drawings by Paul Klee which are so exquisitely beautiful that they must be coutned among the most precious things ever created by man. Viewing them is an act of revitalization, a journey to the absolute frontiers of intuition and sensibility -- and even at times a step beyond.

And there are little scraps of paper on which Chinese of Japanese artists sketched tiny fragments of life centuries ago. Perhaps it was a piece of moss or a snail crawling up a bamboo. Whatever it was, it was so lovingly drawn and sensitively placed on the paper that its livingness was caught and contained within a few lines and tones -- and was then released momentarily to me as I viewed the sketch.

Centuries drop away. The artist and I are alone together as we experience the beauty and the preciousness of the moment and share its living, breathing actuality.m And then, when I return to the present, I feel refreshed and more capable of appreciating the little things that live around me.

This delicate and humble kind of art can be found everywhere. I recently saw some paintings by the young Spanish artist, Te resa Gancedo. She has a modest talent, but no matter! For she exercises it with the gentlest love and care. She paints life's tiny odds and ends: twigs, feathers, flowers, matches. But she paints them with the loving touch others would reserve for helping a wounded robin or comforting a frightened deer.

Then there are the delicate and suggestive abstractions and constructions, the formal structures and color relationships which reflect private glimpses of natural and divine order -- or clues to the nature of light and color. What are we to make of them if we judge only on the basis of hte Sistine ceiling or the paintings of Rembrandt?

Richard Anuszkiewicz is a good case in point. His paintings and prints strain our optical sensibilities. They force us to see reds within reds and to pitch our perception of color interdependence to the limits of human vision.

He even challenges our perceptions in such black-and-white images as the one reproduced on this page. Looking at it, who can tell for certain whether the central square is a flat shape painted solid balck or a section of infinite black space glimpsed through an open-ended box?

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But, one may ask, why take such things seriously? Haven't we mroe important things to channel into art?

If the purpose of art is to create magnificent masterpieces for museums, I would say, yes, there are more important things to paint. But if the purpose of art is to enrich human sensibilities, to give voice and expression to human experience, vision, adn thought, well then, i would say no, there aren't any more important things to paint. And I would add anything that causes us to look more closely, experience more intimately, or probe more persistently the world around us is valuable and good.

Art cannot be pushed into neat little boxes or created intact for museums. It is alive, and springs from the soil of human experience every bit as much as trees spring from the earth. Every attempt to insist that art take certain preordained routes has led to failure. Even such a superlatively great artist as Michelangelo knew that e was an integral part of a living tradition and not an isolated phenomenon. Like a stream entering a river, he broadened and enriched that tradition, but he remained in touch, and intimately involved with it throughout his creative life.

Twentieth-century man, on the other hand, trembles in the presence of realities and feelings he cannot understand. Both great light and great darkness have fallen upon our age. Infinity and space have opened up for us, and we are both stimulated and afraid.

Our questions always beget more questions. And we are beset by anxieties and doubts. Deprived of our faith in inexorable progress, detached from our dependency upon church and state, and alienated from our vision of real and potential human greatness, we stumble about looking for assurances and certainties.

But they are not easy to find. The monuments we once looked up to are proving to be empty or in ruins. Greatness has gone out of fashion, and nobility of spirit and purpose has given way to size and power. The momentum of our age has been too swift, our vision of ourselves too banal, for genuine assurances and certainties to have taken root.

But the human spirit continues on undaunted. And one of its most intimate, direct, and ennobling realizations and expressions is art. Like water, it is everywhere we are. And, like water, it can be as huge and impressive as an ocean, or as private, refreshing, and life-giving as a trickle of cool water from a spring. It is never more than a hairbreadth away, but we must not prejudge it or it will pass us by.

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