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The many masks of modern art

In art as in life, a little ecstasy can go a long way. A touch too much, or a failure to handle it properly, and what started out to be an expression of joy can easily turn into an embarrassment.

What moved the artist may not move us, or may violate to express it. We may feel forced to overrespond to something that would, in normal circumstances, hardly touch us at all.

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Difficult as it is for some to understand, profound emotion is not in itself enough for the creation of art. To become art, emotion must be broken down and reassembled as paint, as color, texture, line, as smoothness against roughness, dark against light, or "hot" colors against cold. It must be translated from a received experience into an active, projective, and pulsating one. But, most of all, the artist must manage to convince us totally and without qualification that what he asks us to feel is not fraudulent, is not designed to deny reality or to serve his ego, that it is life-enhancing, vital, and true.

And what is true of gentle feelings and emotions is magnified a hundredfold when dealing with passion or ecstasy. The number of artists who have successfully translated passion into art can be counted on the fingers of both hands, and those who have truly given form to ecstasy can be counted on the fingers of one. For every Michelangelo, El Greco, or Van Gogh, there are dozens of excellent painters of quieter, more subtle and gentle moods.

The problem lies in giving full expression to what is felt. I would guess that the ratio between what the "average" artist feels very strongly and deeply about, and what he or she can satisfactorily communicate through art, is roughly 5 to 1. In the case of a major master that would drop to about 3 to 1, and for one of the truly greats, 2 to 1. (It is my personal conviction that the only creative individuals who can fulfill or fully "express" themselves are the genuine mystics. And only because their "medium" is their own total being and identity -- not something exterior to themselves such as paint or color.)

On the other hand, since great art signifies great content, it's also safe to assume that a Rembrandt or a Beethoven felt and experienced life on a level most of us do not, or do so only infrequently. And that their greatness lay not only in how beautifully their art found its formal resolution but also in how that resolution reflected their vision of the value and significance of life.

The artist and the man, after all, make up a single entity, and are never detached from each other. At least that's the way it is with someone who ism an artist, someone who finds and expresses himself within and through his art -- be it on the level of a Vermeer, a Grand Wood, or the youngster down the street who spends all day and part of the night hard at work at his easel.

Art itself is fairly common, and exists whenever an individual can symbolically give voice to his feelings or experience -- and can convince others of its legitimacy. But significant art, art that articles and gives form to more than just one individual's realities, is relatively rare. And great art, art that encapsulates and gives form to mankind's deepest stirrings and intimations of meaning, is rare indeed. It's not because we lack enough great men or women, or enough magnificent talent, but because the circumstance of finding a great human being and a great talent coexisting within the same person is incredibly rare.

When we do find a true fusion of human quality and of artistic talent, we should accept it with pleasure and gratitude -- and not complain that that talent may not be as big as Ruben's or as great as Vermeer's. For one thing, this does no good -- and Edward Hopper can no more become a Matisse than an apple can become a pear -- and for another, such carping prevents us from appreciating the qualities the artist does have, qualities that could enrich our lives if we only let them.

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We should first determine if a work of art is true, and thenm determine if it is sifnificant or great. Artistic truth is a personal matter (there are potentially as many artistic truths as there are human beings), and it is downright silly to assume that art on that level must be realistic, or abstract, or whatever before it can join the community of man. Significance or greatness, however, can be a different matter, and to ignore the fact that a particular period finds (or thinks it finds) its deepest and truest voice within one style rather than another is equally silly and unrealistic.

But any age has its mavericks, artists who go their own way regardless of prevailing style or fashion. These can be either rugged individualists like Goya or Blake, whose art stands very much alone, or active revolutionaries like Cezanne or Picasso, who not only create a new style, but spawn a host of followers.

This century has produced both kinds of mavericks, but only the latter type, the revolutionaries (Matisse, Klee, Pollock, etc.), has achieved major fame and glory -- and, ultimately, critical respectability. The other kind (Rouault, Kollwitz, Balthus, Spencer, Wyeth, Hopper, Tanguy, Graves), while well known and beloved by many, always remains somewhat beyond the critical pale.

A recent American, a maverick in his youth and in his later years (although a fairly typical American regionalist during his middle period), who has not yet achieved the full level of critical acceptance he deserves, is Charles Burchfield.

A Burchfield exhibition is always an outstanding event for me. I can immerse my self in his vision of the world, and share with him his enthusiasms and passions, even his exultations and ecstasies for the many faces of nature, for the humming heat of August, the flash of sun breaking through during a blizzard, birds singing in a swamp, the resurgence of plant life in spring, trees bursting upward toward the sky, or the chill of approaching winter.

And I can do so because he totally convinces me of the legitimacy of his feelings and of the fact that his art is not intended to deny or evade reality but to illuminate it -- that it is life-enhancing, vital, and true. And this applies even to his most ecstatic and visionary images, works in which colors, shapes, and lines vibrate and sing out with a passion that it almost as raw and as direct as life itself.

Although I love and admire his art deeply, I cannot claim that it achieves greatness or that he was one of the tiny handful of painters who were totally successful in translating ecstasy into art. (Place even the best Burchfield next to Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" and Van Gogh's superiority becomes immediately apparent.) But he was one of the very small band of artists who tackled this level of feeling through their art and who succeeded in creating marvelous paintings that truly sing out and resonate with the passions of life. He had the rare gift of speaking simply and directly with his own voice in an age whose artistic priorities differed greatly from his own. He stands very much alone and I love him for it -- just as I do Samuel Palmer for his uniqueness, of Blake, Redon, Bresdin, Ensor, Graves, or even Grandma Moses. In a world too full of conformity, I say bless them all!

The next article in this series appears on June 9.m

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