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Another look at a 'new sensibility'

A new sensibility is abroad in the land - indeed, in the world - and it's making itself felt in several of the arts. It hasn't quite defined itself yet, but this much is clear: It prefers exuberance, vitality, and the exotic to caution, restraint, and tight formal control.

We are, as a result, standing on the dividing line between two dramatically divergent art-historical periods, and will soon discover that the year 1980 will be considered as much a watershed date in modern art history as 1905, 1913, 1920 , and 1946.

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It's fascinating to watch, just as it was fascinating to watch American art begin its dramatic turnover in 1946 from Regionalism and American Scene painting to what would later be known as Abstract Expressionism. There's a big difference between then and now, however. American art didn't take itself as seriously then , and very little money and prestige were invested at that time in the then popular forms of art.

No one was the loser back in the 1940s - except, of course, the artists and a few dealers - when an entire generation of American artists was scrapped to make way for the new. That's hardly the case today. If the various art movements of the past 35 years were to be ''proven'' of questionable merit, hundreds of millions of dollars invested in everyone from Pollock to Warhol to Schnabel would go right down the drain.

I happen to believe that Pollock was a highly significant artist, and so I would be surprised if such a thing happened. But it may. (Tastes in art can change totally and dramatically, especially if they reflect even deeper cultural , social, or political changes.) And if it does, many interesting things will occur. Third-rate Rothkos will no longer sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a Warhol doodle will no longer cost more than a round-trip ticket to Europe for two.

It's interesting to note how many subtle changes have already begun to take place. Relatively few Minimal or Conceptual works still look interesting or vital; most, in fact, already seem as dated and ''beside the point'' as the vast body of Regionalist or Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. And a good 80 percent of the Pop-Art over which we enthused in the early 1960s now looks embarrassingly silly. Only a few living artists who came to fame through a particular movement still look good. Motherwell, de Kooning, and Stamos, for instance, can still hold their heads high - as can Rosenquist (who's now better than ever), Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, Dine, Stella (who keeps getting better all the time), LeWitt, and a handful of others. But then, they were artists first and theorists second.

The new sensibility represents the wish to maximize art rather than to minimalize it, to expand its range and potential rather than to find its most perfect or its irreducible form. It prefers art that includes psychological and philosophical overtones and implications to art that seeks to divorce itself from all thematic or literary references. It is expansive rather than contractive, explosive rather than neat and tidy.

Delacroix would be much more likely to approve of it than Ingres, and Van Gogh would understand its assumptions and passions even though he might not fully accept some of its methods.

Thematically, it tends more toward myth, tall tales, and romantic exuberances than toward formal ideologies or experiments in perception. As for technique, it favors anything that gives the most direct expression to feeling, idea, or emotion.

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No one better represents this new sensibility than the younger West German and Italian painters who have recently made such an impact on the art world. And of this group none more perfectly embodies and articulates its passions and values than Enzo Cucchi.

New York's first reaction to his work roughly three years ago was largely negative. Few viewers saw it as anything but gross, inept, and sophomoric - an impression that was only somewhat modified in the spring of 1982 when New York's Guggenheim Museum mounted a major exhibition of the newer tendencies in Italian art and included some of his works in it.

Even with this newfound respectability there didn't seem much to get excited about. Cucchi's paintings still looked quite silly, especially next to the slightly more elegant and imaginative works of Sandro Chia and Nino Longobardi.

Yet his reputation grew. He became a world celebrity, one of the internationally renowned Italian trio of Chia, Cucchi, and Clemente. Prices for his paintings began to rise significantly, and exhibitions featuring his work soon became a must for anyone interested in keeping up with the latest in art.

His March 1983 New York gallery exhibition came as a total and quite stunning surpise for many. It consisted of only a few very large canvases, but every one of them was a wonder, and three of them were extraordinarily powerful and effective.

Each of these three paintings depicted a rooster hurtling exultantly toward the sky. They were so passionately and urgently painted, and were so intense, that the event depicted actually seemed to be taking place before the viewer's eyes.

Such painterly passion has been extremely rare since the days of Abstract Expressionism, and such a direct appeal to the senses and emotions hasn't been attempted on such a scale in quite a while. Although the paint was thickly applied, and with no regard for finesse or subtlety, the overall effect was stunningly affirmative and life-enhancing. It was obvious that a powerful new voice had appeared on the scene, and that the ''new sensibility'' was here to stay.

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