It's always a pleasure to discover that the urbanization of art is not yet complete: that art can still at times smell of earth, grass, and muddy fields; that a tree can still be painted as a tree - with every gnarl, twig, leaf, and bud intact; that landscapes can still wander over hill and dale; that lakes can still lie near gorgeous pines, and waterfalls tumble within rocky gorges; and that forests can still be depicted as cluttered, dense, and brooding - with creeping vines, dark green moss, tangled shrubbery, and little animals peeking out from behind rocks and bushes.
There is something particularly marvelous about visually precise yet expansive landscape paintings within which we can imagine ourselves going for walks, climbing hills, wading streams, picking up sticks and stones, lying on our backs watching the clouds float by, or wandering off toward the horizon.
Americans have enjoyed a love affair with the horizon ever since the days of Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark. We have always been fascinated by it; our eyes have always sought it out, our imaginations have fantasized about what lay beyond it, and we have always been willing to pull up roots, even to this day, and head in its direction.
The horizon has also played a significant role in our art, from the magnificent 19th-century panoramic landscapes of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and the Hudson River School; the dramatic Western paintings of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington; the desert, prairie, and farmland landscapes of the 1930s Regionalists; to the grandiloquently abstracted visions of open space by Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. Even such a recent work as Walter De Maria's ''Lightning Field,'' 400 stainless steel poles set regularly within a flat, mile-long New Mexico field, depends to a large extent on the dramatic and arbitrary flatness of the horizon for much of its effect.
But while landscape art may have been central to American culture for a very long time, it has, unfortunately, been in short supply of late. What we have had of it has tended to be merely pretty or coldly descriptive - or an excuse for various new-Modernist painterly exercises. Respect for the integrity of the landscape, for its right to be portrayed as it is - rather than as a format for formal inventiveness - has generally been lacking of late.
The excellent landscapes produced since World War II by Hopper, Burchfield, and Wyeth were never really able to make themselves heard above the noisy and often cacophonous exclamations of whatever new school of painting was currently in vogue. And Photo Realism, which came later, hardly helped matters at all, since most of its focus was on city subjects and themes.
Missing most of all (except, once again, in the art of the above-named artists) has been the landscape of mood and character, the landscape that not only presents the external facts about a place, but also brings to the surface something of its mood and atmosphere - qualities which can then be utilized by the artist, if he wishes, to convey his more private and subjective feelings.
One thinks here of the visionary paintings of Samuel Palmer, the passionate and ecstatic landscapes of Van Gogh, and the haunting landscape images of Edvard Munch. Or the Romantic, yearning, and devotional works of Caspar David Friedrich. Even if such remarkable levels of landscape painting appear unlikely in an age so overwhelmingly devoted to the tenets of Modernism as ours, it still is a pity that hardly anyone of note seems even remotely interested today in working in this genre.
I am particularly delighted, therefore, to be able to report that I have recently seen the work of a young landscape painter for whom mood is essential. His generally large and precisely painted canvases not only successfully depict the facts of a particular place, but its spirit, atmosphere, and basic character as well.
One could almost describe Charles Moser as a landscape portraitist, for his ability to combine authenticity of place with clarity and consistency of mood creates landscapes that have almost as much personality, and certainly as much specific identity, as any portrait of a man or woman.
My first contact with one of Moser's works was in the basement storage area of a gallery. There, surrounded by storage racks, framing equipment, and other ''backstage'' gallery paraphernalia, was a large canvas. Although resting on its side, it immediately caught my attention because of its rich and vibrant tonality, and - even at that angle - its emphatic and totally convincing sense of place. It was an excellent piece of painting. But it was also, when I saw it properly, a marvelous portrait of a place, a remarkable expression of a mood, and the clear articulation of an obviously intelligent and talented painter's creative point of view.
What particularly pleased me was its existence as a painting, and not, as is the case with so much representational art today, as a canvas mechanically and unfeelingly covered with paint in order to reproduce precisely the effect of a photographic image. No, this was obviously the work of a real painter, someone who loved and found creative fulfillment through the application of paint to canvas.
What also struck me when I had seen more of his work and had gotten to know it better was how aware Moser is of the art-historical and contemporary art-world context within which he creates and competes. He is no naive realist working in a vacuum, but a knowledgeable and sophisticated artist who knows precisely what he is doing - and why.
To Moser, painting at its highest and truest is representational. He is quite emphatic about that, not in the manner of an angry or frustrated antimodernist, but of an artist responding to private inner promptings and insights, who sees what others do as pretty much beside the point of his own most basic feelings.
Not that he doesn't look carefully at what else is being painted today, nor that he doesn't involve himself in creative dialogues with it. It is only that he knows who he is and what he wants - and finds little in the work of others to cause him to change his mind.
He paints what he paints, and in the way that he does, because doing so gives him a sense of order, serenity, and significance. And because it permits him to create islands of certainty and beauty in a world of contradictions and ambiguities.
But while these ''islands'' may have been painted for Moser's own private reasons, they become, upon completion, public statements about the very things that originally motivated him to bring them into being. And they exist from that time on, not only as handsome landscape paintings, but as symbols and icons of serenity and beauty - even of significance - as well.
Although, as paintings go, Moser's works are not very expensive, they still do cost a substantial sum. As of this writing, a man of modest means has fallen in love with one of them, and is seriously considering withdrawing a goodly sum from his savings to buy it. I doubt very much that he would do such a thing unless the work represented a great deal more to him than just a landscape of trees, a road, and some fields. In other words, unless it also represented in some way those larger and deeper qualities to which Moser was trying to give form and substance.
That man may not be aware of it, but it seems to me what he wants so badly is symbolic proof - in the form of a simple but moving landscape - that such things as order, serenity, beauty, and significance do indeed exist. That there is more to life than what appears on the surface.