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The many masks of modern art

I've quite fallen in love with the paintings of Grandma Moses - even though it's taken several decades for it to happen. It took so long because I'd never taken her work very seriously. Her ''discovery'' in 1939, and her first one-woman show in 1940 when she was eighty, led to a series of media events that permanently soured many who couldn't equate the extravagant words written about her with what they saw of her work. And neither did the continuing, generally uncritical adulation her work received from then on do anything to help. Many who might have accepted her as an interesting, minor primitive painter were appalled to hear her compared favorably with Henri Rousseau, and lauded to the skies as America's most genuine and significant contribution to post-World War II art.

Her many imitators only made things worse. By focusing entirely on the folksy and colorfully patterned aspects of her art, they produced a large body of sentimental, decorative paintings that debased her true intentions. And this again was not helped by the fact that several exhibitions of her work over the years included too many lesser and not quite successful pieces.

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I did occasionally, however, come across a few of her paintings that caused me to wonder if I hadn't underestimated her. A particular quality about them forced me to pay close attention. Perhaps it was only something as simple as the manner in which she painted falling snow, or the subtlety with which she related several varieties of greens and blues to a pink. But whatever it was, I was invariably struck by the art that lay behind the picture's warmth, charm, and good cheer. And by the fact that it had been painted by an artist of uncommon sensibilities.

A recent exhibition of some of her best paintings at New York's Galerie St. Etienne clinched the matter of her art for me. I was won over - to the point where I've been delving into the sources and significances of her work, as well as delighting in its many fascinating nooks and crannies, ever since.

To do so, I've returned several times to the exhibition, and have permanently dog-eared Jane Kallir's profusely illustrated and lovingly written book on Grandma Moses that accompanies the show. What comes across most dramatically is that Grandma Moses celebrated life through her art. Her paintings crackle and sparkle with it. From the tiniest flower bursting above ground as a daub of cadmium red, to a snow-covered landscape dotted with lovingly detailed trees and teeming with dozens of colorful ice skaters, her emphasis is always on the life-enhancing and life-perpetuating. Enthusiasm for life is her primary subject. Looking at her paintings, we feel the crispness of the air, the heat of a roaring fire, the coldness of snow, the pleasure derived from simple acts. Whatever other skills and levels of sophistication she may have lacked, Grandma Moses was a past master of the art of living. And it is this mastery, coupled with an exquisitely subtle sense of color and a remarkable gift for placement and design, that gives her art its special warmth and grace.

We need only glance at the work of her imitators to realize how deeply her paintings are grounded in reality and experience, and how superficially sentimental the works of her followers are in intent and effect. They were the ones who set out to be charming, cute, and decorative - not Grandma Moses. Her intention was to depict life as fully and richly as she had experienced it. Theirs, to create a whimsical and charmingly escapist fantasy world.

She didn't, in other words, set out to be a delightful or charming primitive painter, she just ended up that way. If anything, she probably saw herself as a realist.

Everything in her paintings conveys character and particularity. While her many people, animals, and objects may at first glance appear cast from the same mold, careful examination will reveal that every one is individually perceived and characterized. It would not, as a matter of fact, be incorrect to describe her paintings as consisting of hundreds of tiny ''portraits'' of people and things adding up to one full ''portrait'' of the occasion she is celebrating.

This particularity also applies to her color, which is always realistically based. A color might be simplified and made brighter by laying it out flat and unmodulated, but it was never ''invented'' to accommodate her fancy. On the other hand, she was capable of achieving extraordinarily subtle and beautiful coloristic effects by juxtaposing several realistically derived color areas to form quilt-like patterns or designs.

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If she was incapable of fully orchestrating color, she was capable of creating some lovely ''melodies'' with it. As a matter of fact, it is her color, as much as anything, that legitimizes her work as art. If her drawing was weak, and her understanding of form and perspective limited, her sense of color was, to say the least, remarkable. And this was particularly true when it came to atmospheric effects. From the fresh green of early spring, to the sparkling white of deep winter, she knew precisely how to manipulate her colors to achieve maximum seasonal effects.

This ability to create compositional unity through atmospheric effect is one of Grandma Moses' outstanding virtues - especially since she often applied it in paintings teeming with literally hundreds of people and things. Some of her compositions are as complex and bursting with humanity and life as any of Bruegel's, and yet they stand whole and unified, thanks to her uncanny ability to make the nature and quality of a particular season the real subject of such a composition.

Some of her loveliest paintings, on the other hand, consist largely of subtle variations of soft greens dramatically punctuated here and there by the white of distant houses, the bright colors of a farmer's shirt or a young girl's dress, or the winding blue of a river or stream. One in particular, ''Hoosick Valley (From the Window),'' a heartbreakingly beautiful color study of the hills, woods , and farmland glimpsed from Grandma Moses' window, is as exquisite a painting as one could hope to find. It is, in every sense of the word, a work of art. Minor, perhaps, but utterly true as art. And another work, ''Halloween,'' makes its point by allowing subtle colors to ''frame'' the brighter colors of the various people depicted in it.

Also exceptional is the ease with which her paintings can bear structural analysis, and the pleasure that can be derived from studying their thematic and formal intricacies. Many of her paintings actually become stronger and richer the longer we study them, and those that rank among her best actually create amazement if studied long enough. How, we wonder, could anyone so untrained and ''unsophisticated'' in artistic matters have composed so elegantly, fashioned such exquisite color harmonies, and painted with such a lyrical touch?

It's a fascinating and important question, and one that touches upon many crucial issues. Among them are the nature of creativity, talent, authenticity, and skill; the importance of art education; the role of tradition in art; and the advantages and disadvantages of professionalism. A good example of Grandma Moses' art throws all these questions into sharp relief - if for no other reason than that she paid little if any attention to any of them.

She had a simple, direct, and no-nonsense attitude toward her art. In her autobiography we read, ''If I didn't start painting I would have raised chickens. I could still do it now.'' And in a letter to her grandson she wrote, ''As for myself, I shall continue painting. I can make more money that way, as it is easier for me than taking in boarders.''

To Grandma, art was only one more facet of a very long and rich life. What really mattered was living itself, and the quality of the life lived. Small wonder then that her paintings, embodying as they do this attitude toward life, should be as popular and well loved as they are.

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