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Beneath the surface, near the top

It's extremely difficult to create art out of thin air. Most of those who try produce lifeless objects lacking style or grace, or turn out patterns and designs whose identities relate more to geometry than to art.

It can, however, be done, but only by those who understand that art is more than something pretty or clever, and that its creation requires more than the exercise of talent or skill.

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But it actually demands even more. It also requires a creative sensibility of the highest order. Art, after all, is not merely a matter of putting together beautiful shapes and colors, or of constructing things that fascinate or impress. It is the sensitive utilization of every talent and skill at one's disposal in order to give voice and form to profoundly interior intuitions and feelings that would otherwise remain mute and hidden.

Art, in short, is always more than a thing. Even the grandest and most brilliantly executed painting or sculpture ever produced would be only an impressive object if it didn't also direct our attention to something other than itself.

Art points the way. It is never the end of the journey, nor a thing entirely unto itself. If a work is only what we see of it, if its identity begins and ends with its shapes, colors, lines, formal relationships, etc., then it is not art. Beautiful design or decoration, perhaps, but not art.

This distinction is particularly important when we enter the realm of abstract or nonrepresentational art. To the untrained or insensitive eye, a large percentage of such art appears merely decorative and without any deeper significance than what can be found in a beautiful rug or a wallpaper design. And the differences that exist between a Calder mobile and the ''mobiles'' mass-produced to enliven the home or to entertain babies in their cribs seem trivial if not totally insignificant.

Even the art world has problems in this area. Some artists are so close to being merely decorative in what they do that critics and curators remain divided about their work's true status. And there are others whose work so loudly and cleverly insists it is art that decades can pass before the smoke clears sufficiently for such work to be seen as anything but art.

Decoration is an exquisite trap into which even brilliant artists have occasionally fallen. Leger, Dufy, Bonnard, and Chagall produced minor works that are little more than high-class decoration. And now and then even Picasso and Matisse seemed to prefer decoration over art.

Roy Lichtenstein is another artist for whom the merely decorative is a clear and present danger, and much the same is true of Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist, and Kenneth Noland.

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No other recent artist, however, has skirted the temptations and the dangers of decoration as frequently and as brilliantly as Frank Stella. And none has scored so dramatically in the process as he.

But then Stella is a phenomenon in contemporary American art, and one of its most enduring stars. His career started at the very top in 1959 and has weathered every change in artistic fashion since then. If anything, he is now more innovative and creatively powerful than ever, and so firmly entrenched in the minds of the art community as a truly major talent that it seems very likely he will someday be acclaimed the most important American artist of this century's declining years.

I'm not certain I'd go along with that - at least not yet. I do, however, suspect he will ultimately be rated one of the best printmakers of the century (not so much for his earlier prints as for those he started producing in 1980) - and that he will remain a dominant figure in American art for a long time to come.

He's just too talented, intelligent, searching, and energized ever to be put down. No sooner does he seem to have exhausted one style or form than he pops up with a new variant - or comes up with something totally different or new.

The art world was startled, for instance, a few short years ago to discover he had gone three-dimensional, and that he had moved from an imagery that was classically serene to one that was extremely garish, agitated, and aggressive.

This newfound toughness shocked and dismayed many, but convinced others that, come what may, Stella was never going to be caught in the deadly trap of evolving a successful style - and then endlessly repeating it.

My first reaction to his new work was not particularly favorable. It struck me as too self-consciously tough and ''against the grain'' of his native sensibilities. I respected his decision to move away from the flatness of his earlier paintings and to remove, once and for all, the potentially decorative elements in his work. But I felt that his method of doing so was a bit arbitrary , and that he had decided upon this particular new approach because it represented the exact opposite of what had always been easy for him.

Even so, I was very curious to see how this new work would develop. Very few famous artists, after all, have had the courage to challenge themselves so dramatically to create art out of material so foreign to them. It was an extraordinary effort, and, succeed or fail, it was bound to have fascinating consequences.

Well it has. Stella's large, brilliantly colored, multilayered metal constructions have been visible for several years now, and many have been truly impressive. But that's not all. One of the most recent, ''Interlagos,'' is so stunning that it tops everything else of his, and is, in fact, one of the outstanding works anyone has produced in recent years.

It's an amazing piece of work - almost 11 feet high and 10 feet wide, and so charged with energy that its presence can be felt over 40 feet away. It is bright, loud, garish, and very aggressive, but it proves once again that art can be created out of ''thin air'' - as long as the artist works within a sufficiently large context and has the talent, wit, and sensibility to pull it off.

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