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The many masks of modern art

For some, the creation of art is close to prayer. Not in the sense that it is a direct communication with the divine, but that it activates and gives form and focus to the deepest devotional and reverential levels of being, causing the artist to want to approach his art as simply and as purely as possible.

I knew an artist, for instance, who shaved, showered, and put on clean clothing before starting a painting, and a few who painted only on the whitest and purest of canvases - and then only after a period of meditation.

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I've known others who refused to eat before entering their studios for fear food would hinder their inspiration. And quite a few others who prepared themselves by reading from the classics, listening to music, or immersing themselves in the work of their favorite artists.

And then there was the worker in stained glass I knew many years ago who would never have dreamed of starting work on a new job without first confessing to his parish priest.

Every one of these artists - and what they did wasn't all that unusual - saw the creative act as something special, something both higher and deeper than the rest of their activities. And they felt, as a result, that it demanded some measure of preparation and ''purification.''

This belief that art emerges from one's deepest spiritual levels, and so must be approached sensitively and with respect, is as old as art itself. And yet, interestingly enough, the way it has taken form in this century has been exceptional. Modernism's crucial message in this regard, despite the attitude of antimodernists, has been that art is searching out spiritual values. Spiritual idealism has been a dominant modernist theme from the time of Van Gogh and Redon to the present, and has found some of its most able champions in Kandinsky, Mondrian, Brancusi, Klee, Rothko, Still, and Tobey. And I could easily name a dozen or so excellent artists whose work carries that message this very day.

Now, I know this is difficult for some to understand. How, they ask, can an artist express true spiritual or religious feelings through blobs of paint, or a few squares and triangles? Or, most particularly, through huge canvases smeared with a few reds and browns? Isn't it, they wonder, almost sacrilegious even to consider such a possibility?

The problem is that we still too often see religious art exclusivley as art that depicts religious events or individuals. We have no trouble, for instance, accepting paintings of Crucifixions, Ascensions, or the Three Wise Men attending the baby Jesus as religious art. But let an artist put his religious feelings into simple forms, colors, or lines, and we are apt to doubt his good faith. Or, as in the case of Morris Graves, perceive a painter of small birds singing and pine trees exulting as merely a mildly Romantic artist, when those works are in truth the distillation of a lifetime of profound spiritual searching.

Such a man as Graves was willing to bypass the obvious religious subjects and themes, and search out the deeper qualities and realities. Here, as in so much other art, the secret lies in letting the work itself ''speak'' to us. That is essential, and yet it can only do so if we do not judge it exclusively on surface appearances.

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Unfortunately, today's commissioned religious art is more often illustration than art, with religious events and personages depicted with all the depth and feeling accorded science fiction illustrations and comic book heroes. And with emotions so sentimentalized that religion itself is transformed into a sugar-sweet never-never land.

There is also the type of ''religious art'' that is all yearning and anguish, with grotesque distortions, tormented facial expressions, and wildly gesticulating clusters of celebrants or mourners. Excellent artists often lose their sense of proportion when commissioned to produce religious art, and quite shamelessly fall into the trap of assuming that pain and suffering are essential ingredients of such art.

That, of course, is utter nonsense, and results from a serious misreading of both the great religious art of the past, and of religion itself. It also reflects a misunderstanding of such a truly religious artist as Rouault, who did indeed portray suffering but only as it illuminated the profoundly redemptive power of faith and love.

True religious art directs the viewer to become more himself, not to languish in self-pity, pain, or a sense of alienation. And most emphatically, not to settle for a vision of reality that is petty, sweetly sentimental, or on the level of a fairy tale.

Traditional religious symbolism was the basis of medievel art, and there is a modern form that still partakes of traditional symbolism, although in a highly personal manner. It is usually extremely simple - either because of the artist's technical inadequacy, or because he feels that a virtuoso display of skill would be out of place at such a time. And it is often created with a specific intent.

Such was the case with Mary Ascher's ''The Twelve Women of the New Testament and Early Church,'' a series of purposely simple color serigraphs executed over the past few years. And it was true of her earlier series of oil paintings, ''The Twelve Women of the Old Testament and Apocrypha.'' Both were intended to give form to spiritual and human values, and to be seen by as large an audience as possible.

The individual images of both series are very simple, and have the direct impact of icons. The older series was painted in a simplified Expressionistic technique, while the more recent one was executed in a severely stylized manner reminiscent of early Romanesque art. Both are very warm and colorful, although the recent series, because of its starker design, comes across as the more serene.

Her subjects were carefully chosen. About the Old Testament women she wrote: ''In the great crises in Hebrew history many women played an important part. The twelve I have selected, whether historical or legendary, appear in the Old Testament to illustrate moral, ethical, legal, or spiritual concepts of deep universal concern. . . . These women represent all women. They are all of us.m ''

And about the women of the New Testament: ''I selected twelve women prominent in the New Testament and Early Church, women who symbolized certain eternal principles of faith. Their commitment to faith was complete. All of them worked for the Church, and Faith was their guiding light.''

The two series serve a dual function: to celebrate and honor the contributions of two dozen women of the Bible and of the early church, and to give symbolic pictorial form to certain spiritual and moral truths and qualities.

They succeed on both counts, but on a simple, unpretentious, and intimate level. This is a very private and reverential form of art, despite the fact that it has been widely exhibited, and the recent series is distributed in a limited edition of thirty-five sets. However, it is just this simplicity and intimacy, coupled with Mary Ascher's obvious sincerity, that gives these works their special warmth and meaning. They are private devotional messages sent out by the artist to her fellow human beings.

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