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The many masks of modern art

I have been greatly taken to task by a friend for ignoring the role of sensibility in art, for making such a fuss over art that resolves contradictions and restores equanimity, and for paying so little attention to art that enriches and enchants by virtue of its simple vibrancy, its wholehearted goodnessm and quality.

It's all very fine, he says, to discuss the virtues of artists whose work represents great moral and formal battles fought and won. But how about those creators whose art represents exquisiteness of sensibility, whose paintings and sculptures give form and substance not to human resolutions and victories but to human refinements and sensitivities?

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Why, in other words, give pride of place mainly to the grand, majestic figures, to the Michelangelos, Rembrandts, Cezannes, and Braques, and secondary positions to the more gentle Raphaels, Renoirs, Redons, and Klees? Why see art so exclusively in terms of grandeur and monumentality, when it can also be found in a sketch of a flower, in the flash of a firefly, or in the movement of goldfish in murky water?

He's right, of course. Art, to most of us, does denote a victory of sorts. And I think this is particularly true of us Americans for whom beauty without pain or guilt seems a little frivolous -- unworthy of our pilgrim forefathers.

Art doesm have the right to exist unencumbered of such feelings if it wishes, to be free to celebrate the pure quality and vibrancy of life, to sing like a meadowlark, or to twinkle like a star.

The only problem is that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between something that is charming and pretty and something that is beautiful and art. There is a world of difference between an actual bouquet of flowers and one painted by Odilon Redon --even though the superficial resemblances between them might be extraordinary. Much as I love flowers, I have yet to receive directly from them the gentle jolt of pure gratitude for just being alive that I get from even the most modest of Redon's tender studies of them.

Simply put, beauty reverences life and makes us aware of and grateful for it, while the merely pretty teases and promises, but provides us with nothing other than itself.

One contemporary artist who is well aware of this distinction is Robert Natkin, who has spent a considerable portion of his creative life bringing it into sharp focus through paintings, watercolors, and prints that are subtle evocations of the gentler, more ineffable levels and dimensions of our physical and spiritual universe.

He has done so at considerable risk, for there is nothing so difficult or so dangerous as the pursuit of beauty in art. It is as elusive as the proverbial bluebird of happiness, and just as hard to pin down.

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Natkin has succeeded where so many have failed because he has had the innate good sense to approach beauty as though it were a lovely butterfly awaiting transportation to a special and mysterious garden rather than as that same butterfly destined to be mounted on a board. By that I mean that he coaxes and cajoles his colors, shapes, textures, lines towardm their final destinations on his canvas, and doesn't push and pull them about as though they were puppets on his string. He evokesm the qualities and dimensions of feelings he wants to communicate and share, and thus he is as much magician as artist, as much planter as harvester.

His art is the result of a loving and shrewd reading not only of life and of the Old Masters but of modernism as well, and it lies in direct linear descent from the art of Monet, Bonnard, Klee, and Rothko.

Although he has produced a variety of other works, I am particularly enchanted by his very large amorphic paintings into which we are drawn, much as the huge landscape canvases of the 19th century transported us into untamed forests, spectacular mountain vistas, or vast, empty plains. Only here we enter an abstract, coloristic, and textural universe in which we journey between and among an extraordinary variety of delicate textures, flat areas of color, fine gradations of hot reds or deep, cool blues, energetic linear squiggles that move in and out like friendly fish, irregular blobs, circles, squares, and triangles, while, overall, is a depply luminous, multidimensional atmosphere both ocean-deep and sky-clear. And all wrapped up and transcended by a vision of art that is beautifully evocative, lyrical, exhilarating -- and absolutely his own. A vision that has produced an art that suggests music, long walks through magical gardens or deep, underwater landscapes.

Natkin, in other words, is not a formal purist, a designer and architect of abstract compositions intended to stand strictly on their own without any reference to other things, places, or events. He is a visual poet whose apparently abstract images actually exist to enchant us with intimations and evocations of things we can sense but never quite see.

Now, while I and large numbers of his fans and collectors (and the latter include major museums as well as private individuals) may find this utterly commendable, there are certain elements of the critical community who do not, who see his work as pleasant and pretty, but not much else.

It's an easy trap to fall into as far as Natkin's art is concerned. And the situation isn't made any easier by the fact that his paintings are so accessible , so easy to respond to. One needs very little (if any) art-historical (ancient or recent) information to be caught up by his work, and certainly no complex explanation of its intent or purpose to enjoy it. It quite simply is,m and we need only take that first responsive step toward it. After that the work itself takes over.

Now this would seem ideal: the work is rich and appealing, and the viewer need only move toward it for the enchantment to begin. But alas, that is much too simple for many of us.

After a century of assuming that all art worthy of the name must first be difficult if not almost impossible to grasp, and that any art that is lovely and appealing at first glance must be superficial and trite, we are now hard put to know what to do with art that gently beckons us toward it rather than dares us to understand what it is all about.

I know, because I felt much that way about Natkin's paintings myself several years ago. It was only after spending a long day working in a room dominated by one of his mural-size canvases that I began to sense that a great deal more was going on in them than I had at first thought. Since then I have taken every opportunity to see more of them.

As a result, I now believe that Natkin has painted a number of the loveliest paintings produced in recent years. But I did not know that until I let my feelings and my heart --and not my head -- lead me to that realization. And in the process, I learned more than ever that there is indeed a great deal more to art than monumentality or grandeur or verisimilitude, that beauty ism a matter of sensibility as much as of formal resolution. And that it can be warm and friendly as well as cool and austere.

The next article in this series appears on May 26.

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