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The many masks of modern art

Some artists are so creatively fertile that almost everything they touch becomes art. Thus, Michelangelo's slightest sketches convey the essence of his genius, Rembrandt's dashed-off studies project as much humanity as his major paintings, and Cezanne's monumental vision is present even in his most delicate watercolors.

Many of Picasso's major ideas first saw the light of day as ''doodles'' and scribblings on paper, and more than a few of Braque's important paintings evolved from a few pencil lines. Even Mondrian, that paragon of painterly control, produced his share of tentative studies and sketches.

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The list of artists whose creative juices began to flow the moment their pens or pencils touched paper, and who produced exquisitely subtle or boldly incisive drawings as a result, is larger than we suppose. Unfortunately, the world pays relatively little attention to this kind of art unless a great name is attached to it. The world is not particularly interested in sketchy evidences of creative intuition, rough, unpolished forms, or tentative hints of formal ideas. It much prefers the final product, the framed painting or the sculpture that is large, impressive, complex, and meticulously finished.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that. A great deal of what art is intended to convey is made clear and final only in a successfully completed work. But there is also something special about a study or sketch, for it presents the interested layman with the opportunity to participate to a degree in the creative process, to see what it's like to tap genuine artistic resources, to revel in what talent or genius can do.

When I study a Holbein drawing of a man, or a Degas pastel of a dancer, for instance, I share, for a moment, something of those artists' vision - something of what they felt when trying to transcribe the appearance of objects before them into shapes and lines on paper. I can follow their decisions about how a nose should flare, drapery should hang, feet should point, or a dancer's arm should echo the line of her neck. I'm with those artists as they try out various combinations of lines and shadings, or work to ''distill'' highly complex forms into a few simple and expressive lines.

Because of this involvement, viewing a great drawing is a dynamic and highly active experience for me. If I come upon such a drawing unexpectedly, my attention is caught and riveted fully as much as it would be at the sight of a hundred-dollar bill lying unattended on the sidewalk. My world narrows to what lies on that smallish piece of paper, and as my sensibilities begin to respond to those of the artist, my breathing quickens, my fingers begin to twitch, and I begin to feel much more alive than I did before encountering the drawing.

I've often wondered why a great drawing has such an effect upon me and upon those others who feel the same way I do about drawing. It really has little to do with the artist's name - although I must admit to a feeling of awe at actually holding something Rembrandt or Michelangelo created. And it has little to do with subject or size. There are sketches by some of the masters that are only an inch or so in size, and that depict nothing more grand than a piece of drapery or the wing of a bird, and yet they are every bit as breathtaking as a monumental landscape or great event.

No, I think it has to do with a sense of overwhelming immediacy, a sense of tremendous, focused energy, and with a great drawing's ability to alert and call forth whatever creative forces we the viewers have within us.

Holding a great drawing is like holding a compass pointing true north. And it doesn't matter if it's an Egyptian profile-head made four thousand years ago, an ink study of a bamboo shoot by Sesshu, a chalk sketch of a cow by Rubens, a delicate line drawing by Matisse, or an abstraction by Picasso. Wherever or whenever it was made, if it was honestly and honorably conceived and crafted, it will not only speak of beauty, it will also speak of truth.

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While this is especially true of drawings that suggest or define form or movement with great clarity and authority, it's also true of drawings that result from probings into uncharted areas of the imagination. These are often highly tentative and groping, and include numerous false starts and corrections. An entire sheet of paper may be filled with dozens of alternative solutions to a formal problem, to the various ways in which an angel or a demon can be drawn, a fantastic landscape constructed, or the song of a bird translated into line.

Studying such a drawing can tell us more about the way an artist feels, thinks, and works than thousands of words. It can also tell us a great deal about aspects of his creativity or character that he would never dream of revealing in his ''important'' and finished works of art. But most of all, it can clue us in to some of the mysterious processes of creativity itself, and teach us how to solve some of our own more difficult conceptual and formal creative problems.

No other twentieth-century artist, except Picasso, has been a greater ''teacher'' in this regard than the sculptor Henry Moore. No other artist has produced such a broad and deep range of drawings, such a magnificent selection of studies ranging from the most precisely realistic to the most imaginatively abstract. And none has been more willing to commit and to reveal so much of himself in and through the act of drawing.

Among Moore's drawings are some of the most haunting images this century has so far produced. Once having seen them, who can forget his ghost-like and yet tenderly human studies of people huddled underground during the London air raids of World War II? Or his delicately colored chalk and charcoal studies for sculpture, most particularly those celebrating the theme of mother and child? Or even his more straightforward renderings of hands, feet, children, sheep, tree stumps - or anything else that caught his attention and sympathy?

Moore is one of those rare artists who continually translate what transpires within and around them into art. He draws as naturally as he breathes, with much the same unselfconscious ease and with a minimum amount of time required between perception (or conception) and realization.

His drawings are particularly valuable for study, because they reveal so much about the various conceptual and technical processes by means of which ideas can be translated into art. Viewing an exhibition of his drawings is like attending a musician's rehearsal: we see ideas and forms taking shape, sometimes tentatively, sometimes with great authority, but always openly and with a willingness to test alternative methods and interpretations.

Moore is endlessly experimental, both technically and conceptually. Some of his best drawings result from highly original combinations of chalks, crayons, inks, washes, and a variety of pencils. And yet, such combinations almost always result in a unified effect, even though the sheet may consist of one to two dozen separate studies.

He is also eager to learn from others. Among his most fascinating works on paper are studies after such masters as Bellini, Durer, Donatello, and Cezanne. Some are direct transcriptions, others have been interpreted in the light of Moore's personal style.

But most of all, he is a curious and probing individual for whom drawing is an important perceptual tool. He has written, ''The great value and purpose of drawing from life, from nature, is to intensify one's observation, to concentrate on looking, and so increase one's knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the object.''

Which is not so far from Ingres' statement that ''drawing is the probity of art.'' Or from what one of my own art teachers kept insisting: ''To draw is to see.''

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