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The many masks of modern art

Thank heavens for the artists who insist on going their own way! Without them , art would be dull indeed!

I don't mean only those who strike off on their own to create in isolation, and whose work, as a result, is generally highly personal and idiosyncratic. No, I also include those original and innovative creators and shapers of major styles and movements whose beginning steps toward their art were often taken with great courage and determination. These also rank as outstanding individualists - even though the styles and movements they originated may, in the hands of others, eventually come to represent ritual and conformity, and even end up as the perfect hiding place for others of little or no talent or originality.

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In particular, however, my heart goes out to those painters, sculptors, printmakers, who see the creation of art as a profoundly private matter among themselves, the great artists of the past, and the values and ideals they hold dear. What goes on in the rest of the art world is of little concern to them. They may end up totally unknown, ridiculed for their idiosyncrasies, and ignored by the professional art community, but they also often end up with genuine art, the respect of a few peers and art lovers, and the knowledge that they remained true to a vision and an ideal.

Dealing with them professionally can be exasperating, for their values are seldom those of the gallery world. I knew a painter a few years ago who worked at a backbreakng job in order to survive, and who spent every free moment at his easel. He was particularly concerned about not having enough time to paint, and so, when an offer came from a collector every bit as individualistic as he to buy three of his paintings, I felt certain he would jump at the opportunity. But he turned the collector down when he discovered he also owned a few abstractions (a form of art he loathed), even though the money offered was almost equal to a year's wages.

Although this artist may have been an extreme case, he wasn't all that unusual. I am continually amazed at how many others like him exist and work devotedly at their art throughout this country. Some are very young and full of glowing, half-tested ideas, others are forty-, fifty-, even sixty-year veterans of the creative life who continue to work at their art even though hardly anyone knows of them, or cares very much for their work.

A few of these artists were famous during one or another of the various periods of stylistic change through which American art passed during this century but now live with the fact that no one - except for a few surviving contemporaries - remembers them. And this is true even though their art today is often as good as, if not considerably better than, it was when it was in vogue.

But these are mostly artists who prefer to develop their own vision or formal ideals; who view their art as a sort of ''private garden'' within which they can paint their fantasies or give form to their dreams; or who simply don't care to compete for fame or fortune. And then again there are those who, like Winston Churchill, paint or sculpt in order to relax.

Occasionally the ''idiosyncratic'' artist achieves notoriety, and even a kind of fame. Not perhaps the grand and dramatic type acquired by the artist who more perfectly represents his period's values and idealism but a very real and genuine sort of fame nevertheless.

Thus, Ivan Albright, Philip Evergood, and Saul Steinberg have achieved a level of success that may not be as ''official'' or as ''important'' as that accorded Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, or Frank Stella, but which, on the other hand, has the advantage of not being subject to the same vicissitudes and tyrannies of stylistic fashion as is theirs.

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The strongly individualistic artist who does not shape his art according to the dictates of fashion or by adhering to ideals foreign to his own has the advantage of working from a position of integrity and strength. His art, freed from the necessity to keep abreast of the latest style or mode of expression, can evolve logically and consistently from his own creative premises, feelings, and ideals. While the end result may appear a bit strange, and be difficult for others to accept immediately, it also has the advantage of standing completely on its own, and not requiring the support of other, similar works, for its artistic identity.

There is always the possibility, of course, that such art may offer very little of value to society as a whole, or may reflect nothing but its creator's perverse tastes or self-indulgent attitudes. And yet, considering what this sort of creative freedom has produced, I doubt if anyone in his right mind would want it suppressed.

Individuality in art, after all, is an extremely valuable commodity, the best possible corrective I know to art's tendency to become, after a few years or generations of success, smug, neat, terribly ''correct,'' and totally predictable.

It is also the heart and soul of art's magic, for without the artist's special and particular quality, imagination, sensitivity, and intuition, a painting would remain nothing but a complex of shapes and colors, and a piece of sculpture nothing but a mass of materials. The work of art's subject and form may derive from the world or from tradition, but its soul, the spark that animates it and gives it life, comes straight and true from the artist himself.

This is the case with all art, great, small, and in between. From Michelangelo's thundering ''Last Judgment'' to the slightest sketch of a leaf by a fourteenth-century Chinese painter, it is the spirit of the artist that lies at its heart.

With no other contemporary artist is this more true than with Jackson Pollock. Thoroughly grounded in, and respectful of, the traditions of twentieth-century modernist painting, he still felt impelled to seek out and give form to his own uniquely personal painterly intuitions.

Before all else, Pollock felt answerable to the life force within him and to its need to find external form. This compelling and obsessional urge, however, was kept in check at first by means of a continual creative ''dialogue'' with the great ideas, forms, and figures of his time. Only when they could no longer be of any help did he take the final plunge and extend his art beyond all previous checks and balances, beyond all previous notions of what painting could be.

The results, of course, made art history. Painting will never again be quite the same because of his huge canvases upon which he dribbled, tossed, or hurled great quantities of paint.

And yet, Pollock might just as easily have failed to achieve fame and glory, and have ended up as just one more highly individualistic and idiosyncratic artist who refused to compromise and insisted on going his own way.

I personally doubt, however, that that would have happened, because his creative intuitions were altogether too broadly based. His success is as much a tribute to his insights into where his culture and society were heading as it is a reflection of his own creative imperatives. He was fortunate in that his artistic ideals and intuitions, and those of many of his contemporaries, dovetailed and eventually coincided. As a result, what erupted outward from within him answered not only his own needs, but also those of a large segment of the cultural community.

Pollock's art, while highly individualistic, is not idiosyncratic - any more than is the art of Van Gogh, Picasso, or Miro. It is too full of insight, too culturally relevant, it speaks too clearly and forcefully to and for us, to be that. Pollock had the uncanny instinct for sensing precisely where the modernist bottleneck lay, where the momentum of twentieth-century painting had slowed down and become blocked. But more important, rather than playing safe or making a decorative game out of modernism's dilemma, he hurled himself and his art forward and through that bottleneck. With that act, a dam broke, and tremendous forces of creative energy burst clear of previous restraints. Whether or not that was all to the good still remains to be seen. I for one believe that it was.

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