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The many masks of modern art

Every culture and society has a few brave souls who live out their lives at the absolute frontiers of their age -- who, while there, probe into and speculate upon the what lies beyond -- and then somehow manage, with the hope of talent, logic, intuition, and faith, to encapsulate symbolically what they suspect the vision might be.

These frontiers may be in science, mathematics, philosophy, metaphysics, the arts -- in any number of other disciplines, or in combinations of them all.

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One such combination fuses art with metaphysical speculation and experience, and produces an art that is both profoundly physical and highly suggestive. An Art that combines sensitivity with color, line, texture, form -- with intimations of immortality, spiritual intuitions, a sense of the awesomeness of the unknown, and an ache for universal meaning and significance. An art, in other words, which possesses an eager openness toward any and all hints of what might lie beyond human knowledge, definition, or classification. It also raises questions about, and suggests alternative interpretations of, the reality we see , touch, smell, hear -- or think we understand so well.

Although most artists, by the very nature of their creative focus, feel this sense of wonderment and awe before the unknown, the number of those who devote themselves specifically to the search for pictorial approximations of these concepts is extremely small. And for good reason: art and metaphysics, while close in spirit, are far apart as disciplines, and call for vastly different talents and commitments.

It's the rare artist who has the talent and the inclination for both. Among those few in this century who have, however, none managed more successfully than Piet Mondrian to fuse art and metaphysics into a perfectly unified and integrated pictorial image. In his simple, geometric paintings the largest possible vision of reality was symbolically represented through the interaction of absolutely vertical and horizontal lines in conjunction with simple combinations of the primary colors. His paintings are still this century's most perfect icons of spiritually, albeit a highly rarefied and dogmatic version of it.

But another visionary artist, whose relationship with the unknow may be more tentative and inquisitive than dogmatic, is Morris Graves. He is an American painter/draftsman whose provocative works have projected a note of subtlety and mystery into the mainstream of American art for over forty years.

He has not, however, influenced that mainstream to any significant degree, for his art is altogether too private and intuitive to become part of a tradition. As a result, he remains, together with his American contemporaries and peers Tobey, Marin, Burchfield, Dove, and such Europeans as Redon and Klee, a master of true and vital accomplishment but of little formal influence.

Not that his art has not had its effect, has not exerted its own quiet sort of influence -- only that it has done so very subtly and by projecting an awareness of gentler and more radiantly interior alternatives to the passionate abstractions and grandiloquently projective works being produced at the same time.

Grave's alternatives emphasize's role as an evoker of subtle interior moods and otherworldly musings and intimations -- which can be seen as an aid to meditation, rather than as a pictorial presenter of physical facts or as a shrewd organizer of nonrepresentational shapes, colors, patterns, or designs.

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Graves is the least "professional" of artists. His delicate, elusive, and highly suggestive paintings seem more to have sprung spontaneously into being, or to record fragile evidence of the passings overhead (or within) of intangible but profoundly real and mysterious forces, than to have come about as the result of professional concerns.

An exhibition of Graves' paintings presents us with the extraordinary feeling that we are observing an exquisitely honed, creative sensibility waiting, with watchful urgency, at the frontier of human knowledge for something to "pass by." And then, when something does (or appears to), we see it take shape through his art.

It may be something so intangible and fleeting that to capture it on paper becomes as difficult as capturing the flash of a golden fish deep within muddy waters, or the bursting into momentary light of a firefly. But whatever it is, and fugitive as its appearance may be, Graves is the contemporary best suited by talent and temperament to register its presence and its appearance on paper.

This is his unique talent, and the one that has kept him facing outward (as well as inward) toward the unknown at a time when most of his contemporaries were concerning themselves with the formal and physical stretchings of the act itself of painting.

Graves hunts and fishes for evidence of the divine; he is a follower of its spoor and traces. If anyone will ever register even the gentlest caress of an angel's wing, it will be he. And, if intimations and intuitions ever take physical form, he will be among the very first to recognize them for what they are.

Technically, Graves' art resembles that of the Far East more than that of the West, for it tends more toward suggestion and nuance than toward definition or verisimilitude. It seeks out variations of grays, browns, silvers, salmon pinks , and blacks rather than the brilliant hues of sunlight. Even in his recent floral paintings, the touches of brilliant color in the flowers exist more as reminders of what color can be than as frank expressions of it.

Graves' art exists between the present and actual and the imminent and possible. His images, as often as not, are in transition from one state to another, from one dimension of reality to another, and so do not have the detailed precision of, say, a Wyeth, for whom reality is crystal-clear (if a bit melancholy), or the haunting starkness of a Hopper, for whom reality was a matter of courage and stamina in the face of alienation and despair.

Judging from his art, reality for Graves is an eternally ongoing process of question and transformation, a dynamic, ever fluctuating (to our eyes) series of overlapping images and appearances. To peel off one layer of meaning is to reveal the next one in depth -- or at least to catch a fleeting glimpse of where it might be found.

Art, to such a creative spirit, is neither a feast for the eyes nor an arena for the emotions. It is, rather, a launching pad for the spirit and a landing area for truths wishing to make themselves known.

As a result, his art must be viewed differently from that of a Monet or a Soutine. Or of a Kline, Noland, Johns, or Dubuffet, for that matter. It must be seen as suggestion rather than as fact, as process rather than as destination , as spiritual rather than as temporal.

To look at it in any other way is to miss its point and thus to miss the essence of its rare and haunting beauty.

The next article in this series appears on September 8.m


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