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The many masks of modern art

I've scored only one football touchdown and produced only one really successful huge painting in my life. The first took place during my high school days, and the second during my Abstract Expressionist period, roughly thirty years ago.

Both experiences were remarkably alike. Both required tremendous energy and the determination to smash through clearly defined ground rules. And both left me feeling exhilarated, on top of the world, and certain that I could do anything I set my mind to.

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Life has taught me that this isn't necessarily true, for time, place, and talent don't always permit us to score big or to create the spectacular. Nor is it always appropriate for us to push ourselves beyond our usual patterns and routines - or to try to be ''special.'' It may actually be wiser to relax, to interact lovingly rather than competitively with our neighbors, and to savor and enjoy the here and now.

There are some individuals, however, for whom life is primarily a challenge to be met head-on and without any pulling back. Their intelligence, talent, sensibility, and experience are committed without stint to extracting meaning and significance from that encounter.

Among these are the most deeply committed artists of any generation, those relatively rare individuals who devote the major portion of their identities, and most of their energies, to transmuting the stuff of life into culturally significant art.

There aren't many of them. The demands in time, talent, and energy are too great. And then again, such total commitment isn't appropriate for everyone.

I've been on the lookout for these special, impassioned, creative souls all my adult life. And I've found a few. The process is always quite simple: the work itself speaks out, it makes itself known, even if it is still not fully realized - is, as a matter of fact, still half formed.

I've learned to trust my intuitions about such work, and it has almost never failed me, from my first response to Pollock and Rothko in the mid-1940s, to my reactions to what I see in the galleries and artists' studios today.

I do have a problem communicating these feelings to my readers, however, because almost all such work loses roughly 90 percent of its impact when reproduced as a small black-and-white photograph. As a result, I know that what I write cannot be substantiated by a quick glance at whatever painting is illustrating my text.

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A perfect example of what I mean is John McNamara's painting reproduced on this page. As a small, black-and-white image, it doesn't look like much. But in fact, it's a wildly turbulent and powerfully painted canvas whose brilliant colors achieve maximum effect against somber and mysteriously interior blacks.

It's also very large - nine by fifteen feet - and very directly and thickly painted. It packs an extraordinary wallop and totally dominates any space it occupies.

That isn't what most impressed me about it, however. There are, after all, many painters who can sling great gobs of paint onto huge canvases. No, what impressed me was the artist's ''voice'' that spoke from deep within the work. It projected an almost desperate need to fight clear of confusion and ambiguities, and to achieve, entirely through paint, a significant symbolic representation of life's purpose and quality. In addition, I sensed a powerful painterly identity and talent, and the ability to accomplish the task he had set for himself.

Here, I felt, was an artist whose goals were obviously very high, and who, because of the nonrepresentational nature of his work, could only hope to achieve them through steely determination, an unflagging stretch of his sensibilities, and continual trial and error. Whatever art he produced would have to be called up from far within himself, not brought about through a sensitive transcription of nature's physical appearance. Such an artist stands very much alone. Not only must he be clear about what he wants to say, he must also create the language and develop the imagery through which to communicate it.

In musical terms, that would be like asking a musician to be a musical theorist, composer, performer, and conductor all rolled into one. And, if the music was operatic, to sing all the roles as well.

It's a formidable undertaking, and should explain why we have so few accomplished painters of this sort.

McNamara has not yet quite reached that level of accomplishment. His work is still a bit heavy-handed and tense, still not totally sure of itself. But this is only temporary. His potential is extraordinary. Looking at the limited number of his paintings (and some were even larger than the one reproduced here), I felt they contained enough creative raw material to last several lifetimes.

He cannot, however, speed up the process. it must move ahead at its own speed , and resolve itself in its own good time. All he can do is respect his creative intuitions, and trust them wherever they lead.

One of the difficulties in producing such work - but also a major reason for its quality and importance - is that it is neither concocted nor improvised, but drawn directly from the artist's most creative resources. His paintings are profoundly imaginative distillations of experience transmuted into art. As such, they are drenched with the texture and actuality of reality, even though they may not resemble reality's outward appearance.

McNamara is one of the small handful of young painters I've recently come across who have convinced me their art will be around fifty years hence. Not only because they have talent, but because their art is rooted in the deepest dimensions of their being, is filled with a powerful urgency to attain form, and always remains in direct and dynamic contact with the rhythms and resonances of life.

It's still too soon to tell whether his art will survive beyond fifty years. But that shouldn't concern us. What we should be pleased about is that we do have a few such talented artists with direct access to the most private and collective dimensions of being and expression. And that they care enough to devote their lives to shaping what they find there into art.

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