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The many masks of modern art

There's a form of realist art emerging today that is as refreshing as an ocean breeze, and as clear as water from a spring. It is innocent, and wonderfully open, and takes an almost childlike delight in perpetually rediscovering the richness, breadth, and depth of nature.

It doesn't as yet have a collective name, but that should surprise no one. Its artists, after all, have only four general things in common: a personal rejection of modernism as guide or ideal; a feeling that creative sensibility should always take precedence over mere verisimilitude; a strong belief that some of nature's secrets can be unlocked through art; and a willingness to sit humbly at nature's feet, to respond and learn from her, and not to attempt to impose human formal ideals and solutions upon her realities.

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Beyond these generalities, each of its artists goes his own way. Their attempts at transcribing nature into art range from large and detailed panoramic landscapes to precise renderings of tiny objects; from a kind of magic-realism that leaves the viewer curious to know if a detail is painted or real, to a broadly brushed painterly distillation that presents only a muted suggestion of a complex subject's form or appearance.

All of its artists believe in technical skill and careful craftsmanship - but only as a means of presenting their subjects in the best possible light. There is a vast difference, after all, between technical virtuosity that draws attention mainly to itself, and the sort of humble technical skill whose only goal is to bring out the special qualities and appearances of its subjects.

Finally, these artists are not interested in the dead-pan ''objectivity'' practiced by the Photo-Realists, or in having their work mistaken for photography. They are not consciously trying to ''fool the eye,'' or to impose a new formal ideal or theory upon nature. But most of all, they are neither dry and cold imitators of nature's appearances nor artists who use nature as a convenient external form of ''packaging'' for a highly subjective or idiosyncratic interior vision.

They are, in other words, closer in form and spirit to Durer's watercolor drawing of the Young Hare, and to the lyrically precise paintings of Van Eyck, Holbein, Bruegel, Constable, and Degas, than to the monumental or deeply subjective paintings of Cezanne or El Greco.

Interestingly enough, most of them are as deeply aware of the forces and figures of twentieth-century modernism as they are of the artists of the past who sought out nature for inspiration. Their choice of direction was a matter of conscience as well as of predilection. Some of them evolved free of outside pressure to conform to modernist ideals, while others had to fight their way clear of teachers, friends, and dealers who disapproved of the direction their art was taking.

They are highly intelligent and articulate, and much more open and appreciative of art totally unlike their own, than the creators of such art are of what these artists are producing.

The reason is simple. Even though realist art is now in the ascendancy, it still has not received the highest form of ''official'' approval. Those artists who opted for such an art, as a result, had to know precisely what they were doing, and why they were doing it. Their perception of art had to be broad and clear in order for them to survive creatively or professionally. They could not, as could so many of their modernist contemporaries, hurl themselves into the artistic mainstream, and find support merely in the fact that they painted in a modernist style.

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Their perception of what constitutes genuine art is, consequently, more often predicated on a work's individual merit than upon the degree to which it resembles work executed in an approved style. They understand that art is a communicating device, that it is only as good as what it conveys. And that style and manner in themselves are of little real importance.

It is precisely this understanding of art's substance and purpose that makes their best work so engaging and so important at this point in time. Intuitively, and to a degree consciously, they have zeroed in upon a crucial flaw in much of today's art - and have presented us with a clue to take us out of our current creative dilemma.

The flaw lies in the staleness apparent in so much of today's supposedly ''advanced'' art, in its dependence upon worked-over, lifeless styles and forms that are annually recycled, altered a bit to put a new face on an old idea, or made increasingly bigger, brassier, or more sensational.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong, of course, with an old idea. Great traditions, after all, are based on them. But there is something wrong if an old idea is not kept dynamically alive and relevant to the present. And if it is permitted to achieve a level of uncritical near-sanctity merely on the basis of past glories.

And there's also something wrong if a large segment of a younger generation (the so-called post-modernists) predicates its art almost exclusively on overturning and debasing previously held values and ideals. And does so, not to create newer or better values, but merely to show its contempt for what older generations held dear.

It is into this artistic climate that these younger realists have emerged. The art world's reaction to them has been pretty much as expected: very favorable in some quarters, but, by and large, almost totally negative in most others. And I mean negative to the point that they are treated as though they don't exist - as of course they do not - in the eyes of dyed-in-the-wool modernists.

And yet, if one roams the art world, and looks with as little prejudice as possible at the thousands of works on display, one cannot help but wonder if the art world and its values aren't more than just a little topsy-turvy at this time. I find it odd, for instance, that there is more life and vitality, more genuine imagination, more art, in an increasing number of these ''outcast'' realists than in the work of our most highly touted ''important'' figures like Schnabel or Salle. And I find it odd because it doesn't conform to my experience with American art over the past forty years.

During that time, the creative momentum in art has always been toward modernist ideals. No matter how superb a realist painter may have been during that period, he and his art were at best peripheral, and at worst at a tangent to, the modernist mainstream. And that didn't change, even with the emergence roughly fifteen years ago of such ''new realists'' as Pearlstein and Beal.

That no longer seems to be the case. For the first time in forty years, a considerable portion of our most vital and promising art is deeply and totally ''realistic.'' For the first time during that period, realism is striking cultural bedrock, and is producing art that can truly hold its own next to the best modernist art of the post-World War II period.

It's quite apparent to me that we are at a turning point in the history of art, but are still unaware of it, or are unwilling to accept it. We are, instead , making a desperate last-ditch effort to keep things as they've been for so long, and are trying to divert and reverse the inevitable future by hurling ourselves into the most extreme and excessive forms of what has always worked before. But we are beginning to discover that extremism and sensationalism won't work this time, no matter how hard we try - or how hard we try to deny the truth.

The future is calling from several directions - and it will take various forms in art. Some of these will be distillations of modernist principles and ideals. But an equal number will be clear eyed realist works produced after a loving and respectful examination of nature within the context of a highly sophisticated understanding of the history, nature, and purpose of art.

And that is not only a promise for the future, it is already here in some totally new and sparkling modernist works. And in the art of any number of realist painters. Artists such as William Beckman, Alan Magee, Charles Moser, Gregory Gillespie, Frederick Brosen, and a handful of others scattered throughout the country.

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