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The many masks of modern art

Modernism is extremely difficult to define. It covers such a broad spectrum of twentieth-century art that is is almost impossible to produce a definition simple enough to grasp easily, and yet broad enough to encompass all of Modernism's numerous variations.

Furthermore, to attempt such a task without at least a dozen good color illustrations of both Modernist and non-Modernist paintings for analysis and comparison, is folly indeed.

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The time has come, however, for me to try it. Or at least to discuss a few of Modernism's basic attributes. Not only because several readers have asked me to do so, but because Modernism itself is currently under attack - and the better we understand it and its implications, the better will we be able to comprehend the nature and the possible consequences of this attack.

To begin with, a distinction should be made between ''modern'' and ''modernism.'' ''Modern'' pertains to anything that reflects current attitudes, values, styles, or conditions. It can include work that makes no dramatic stylistic break with the art of the past as long as that work reflects contemporary reality in some form or other. Thus, Andrew Wyeth is very much a modern artist because his art, utterly out of the twentieth-century formalist mainstream as it might be, still represents contemporary realities, anxieties, and attitudes. The same cannot be said, however, for such a living ''Western'' artist as Frank McCarthy. His Romantic paintings of the American West belong entirely to the legends and myths of the late nineteenth century, and are, as a result, almost as much fantasy-art for us today as some of our better science-fiction illustrations.

''Modernism,'' on the other hand, is more specific. It refers to a particular vision of reality and art that led to a new theoretic approach to painting and sculpture, and to a series of styles and modes of expression that bear only the slightest resemblance to ''traditional'' Western art. Although a great deal of Modernist art has been and is ''abstract,'' it would be incorrect to define it in the light of that one style. Some artists and theorists, however, have maintained that Modernist ''purity'' demands one and only one style. Thus, Mondrian tackled a totally nonobjective mode in his art with all the dedication, fervor, and idealism of a missionary setting out to convince the world that his truth was the only real truth. And art critic and writer Clement Greenberg first promulgated and then preached a philosophy of post-World War II art that logically and brutally excluded from artistic legitimacy anything that didn't conform to its guidelines.

The problem with this limited perception of Modernism is that it downgrades its breadth and scope. To be so critically categorical is to be as narrow as a person who claims that blue is the only ''true'' color, and French the only ''real'' language. No one, for instance, has ever been more profoundly and crucially a Modernist than Chaim Soutine or Francis Bacon. And yet, according to some purists, neither belongs in the same Modernist league as Kandinsky or Klee, and neither should even be discussed in the same breath with Brancusi or Mondrian.

Modernism, as I've said, represents a particular way of perceiving reality and art. This can be made clearer if we go back to that great trio of painters who fathered it, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Their art contained the seed of most of what followed in the name of Modernism, and almost every twist and turn Modernism took during the following century can be traced back, at least to a degree, to what those three produced.

To get to the real core of Modernism, however, we must also go back to Edvard Munch, that haunted painter who first gave full voice to the soul-cry of twentieth-century art. No other image, I believe, pinpoints the distinction between traditional and Modernist art more clearly than Munch's extraordinary ''The Cry.'' It established the note and set the mood for what was to follow. We may, it is true, argue that there are greater and more important formal and stylistic distinctions between the old and the new to take into account. We may feel, for instance, that the difference in looks between a Rubens and a Pollock, or a Vermeer and a Mondrian, is more crucial than the deeply hidden and less tangible emotional differences that separate traditional and Modernist art. And yet, I cannot help but feel that those stylistic differences are only surface manifestations of a much deeper emotional and spiritual condition and reality.

What really differentiates the significant art of our age from the art of the past is its ability to speak for us, its ability to zero in and give voice to our very modern perception of ourselves as utterly alone and lacking a clear identity and focus. Many see themselves as spiritually and culturally adrift, and have fashioned an art that reflects that perception, that awareness of this condition.

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Modernism either gives form to this awareness directly (Munch, Nolde, Bacon), or indirectly by trying to transmute or transcend it through formal idealization (the Constructivists - Mondrian, Albers, for example). Or, as is more generally the case, by responding through a wide variety of individual styles, each of which represents a unique and highly personal fusion of both points of view (Picasso, Matisse, Miro).

Modernism, in other words, illustrates the truism that newly awakened perceptions and sensibilities demand new symbolic resolutions, and that new styles and forms arise to meet new cultural needs. If that weren't the case, how else could we explain the emergence and acceptance of styles and forms so totally foreign to anything considered art before? On what other basis would we today accept as art the squiggles of Miro, the dribblings of Pollock, or the smudges of Rothko?

One answer - and I still occasionally hear it - is that there is a conspiracy in the art world to further this kind of art, and another, that Modernism has become a habit no one is able to break. Neither answer makes sense. Such a conspiracy would now be one hundred years old, and cultural ''habits'' are challenged by every new generation eager to make its mark. No, I think it quite clear that we generally want the art we have. It might not be perfect, but it does seem to come the closest of any to serving our cultural needs. (It does not necessarily follow, however, that it is the best we could - or indeed do - have. History might very well surprise us and declare Edward Hopper a more important artist than Paul Klee.)

Modernist art obviously looks very different from all previous Western art. To a dedicated traditionalist it is, if not impossibly abstract, then shockingly clumsy, distorted, vulgar, childish, splashy, or over-stylized: an art, in other words, of extremes, excesses, and over-simplifications lacking discipline, tradition, and proper ideals. An art, finally, that lacks character and subtlety because it always insists on calling attention to itself.

Interestingly, in making that last point, such a critic would inadvertently put his finger on one of Modernism's crucial and most important attributes: its insistence that its form and style, its overt surface characteristics, are not only as important as its subject or themes, but that they actually are to a very great extent, what a modernist work of art is all about.

Modernist art does want to call attention to itself. It is often true in such art that ''the medium is the message,'' that the form and style in which something is painted communicate anywhere from 60 percent to 99 percent of what the artist wants to say. As a matter of fact, it would probably be correct to say that when Mondrian and Pollock first realized themselves in their mature styles, the how and the what of their art fused so perfectly that they became absolutely one.

Now, that level of fusion has always been a goal of art, but Modernism is the first form of art ever to have made that fusion itself the subject, the point of art.

It is this degree of ''absolute fusion'' that causes some purists to claim that only those who seek or attain that level can be counted among the true Modernists. And yet, in art, as in life, reality consists more of ambiguities and compromises than of absolutes and perfection.

At any rate, the history of Modernism consists largely of such ''compromises.'' Among these, I've always had a particular fondness for the Expressionists, because they took on the almost impossible task of distilling human realities into the simplest possible forms and the most passionately direct colors without losing either their subjects' humanity or their own identity as Modernists.

Alexej Jawlensky's ''The Old Man'' is a good case in point. Jawlensky, born in Russia in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, is one of the original European Expressionists. Most of his best work was done between 1908 and 1925, and the forcefulness of his originality in dealing with the human face is what he is best remembered for. ''The Old Man'' tells us of human determination, survival, and courage, of one old man's character and dignity. And it does so in the simplest and bluntest manner possible, in a style which is itself expressive of those characteristics and qualities. The old man, the paint texture, the lines, and the color all fuse into one utterly simple, direct, and intact image. We need only compare it to a painted head of an old man by Rembrandt or Eakins to see, at least partly, what Modernism is all about.

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