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Modern romantics

IT'S safe once again to be a romantic in art, to paint pictures of distant places and times, to express aches and yearnings, and to depict oneself alone and misunderstood in a heartless and alien universe.

We do not, however, focus nearly as much as we once did on exotic cultures and civilizations, breathtaking vistas of the Alps or the Rockies, painterly epics such as Thomas Cole's ''The Voyage of Life'' and ''The Course of Empire,'' or highly romanticized depictions of American history such as those given us by Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.

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We have, in effect, less pure escapism in painting and sculpture today, and very little glorification of individual human victories over the wilder and more primitive aspects of nature or the excesses of an industrial state. Urbanism, while not held up as an ideal, is not depicted in today's art - as it was often in 19th-century and American Regionist art - as one of the greatest villains of human society. Even science fiction, that most notable example of 20th-century imaginative escapism, has no real counterpart in today's painting and sculpture.

We also seem to have gotten over (for the time being, at least) the romantic notion that wars are wonderfully exciting and ennobling events. (I know of no serious Western painting of this century that glorifies either war or generals.) And neither do we romanticize our leaders as much as we've been prone to in the past.

For better or worse, our romanticism today is more individual and private, more akin to a release from frustration and boredom than a railing against an unjust fate, malevolent forces, or clear-cut villains. Of course we also have no Byron or Goethe, no Delacroix or Friedrich, to call us collectively to arms in support of specific romantic ideals. We must do all that ourselves. We must find whatever themes, forms, or subjects can be used to give pictorial actuality to the feelings, yearnings, and frustrations we occasionally feel so powerfully within us.

We do, of course, have our recent romantic heroes. Jackson Pollock, smashing his way through any and all formal and art-historical restrictions to fashion an art out of dribbles and blobs of paint, is the epitome of a romantic hero. And the same is true, in varying degrees, of the other Abstract Expressionists. Mark Rothko's later, ache-filled canvases, for instance, are sensitively, even painfully, attuned to the absolute, toward the infinite reaches of transcendental inquiry. And Clyfford Still's paintings represent the same kind of romantic awe and expansiveness we find in the paintings of the Hudson River School and in some of the landscapes of Benton and Wood.

Overall, however, romanticism has been out of fashion since roughly 1958. It wasn't until the very late 1970s that some younger Americans and an impressive group of European painters turned the tables on two decades of strict formalism and tight technical control and reintroduced unrestrained impulse, emotional expansiveness, and a sense of alienation and yearning to the world of art.

Almost overnight (or so it seemed), New York's galleries and museums were giving space and prestige to wild and woolly paintings and three-dimensional objects that would have been rejected out of hand only four or five years earlier. Neo-Expressionism (as it was generally called) was in, and by 1982, such artists as Sandro Chia, Enzo Cicchi, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, A. R. Penck, and Julian Schnabel had become, if not exactly household names, then certainly the new darlings of the art world.

They were only the tip of the iceberg, however. An entire new generation of American artists with a more romantic and free-spirited bent than had been seen in years hove into view. The artists of this generation, from Gregory Amenoff, William Crozier, and Jedd Garet to Melissa Miller, T. L. Solien, Pat Stier, and Tino Zago, saw to it that painting and sculpture would once again permit romantic and expressionist impulses to take precedence over primarily formal or conceptual ideas and ideals.

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Not only did these artists bring new enthusiasms to the art world, they also set new records for creative growth. Amenoff, Garet, and Zago, in particular, made extraordinary steps forward in very short periods; in some instances, only one or two years.

None progressed more rapidly, however, than Louisa Chase. Barbara Rose, with noteworthy prescience, selected her for her controversial 1979 exhibition, ''American Painting: The Eighties,'' when Chase was still somewhat wet behind the ears. By 1981, however, her talents were obvious to many, and within a year after that, a goodly portion of the art world had been won over by her provocatively romantic paintings.

Like so many of her generation (she is now in her early 30s), she dares to be obvious about her feelings and intentions, and to trust her intuitions and sensibilities to not lead her astray. By and large, they have not, even though she has pushed her imagery, color, and formal structurings into areas some would consider dangerous.

She thinks nothing of painting purple sunsets, primeval caves, and lush (if somewhat abstracted) tropical jungles in colors that are often hot and strident. As is also true of Garet, her canvases represent attitudes and formal values often totally at odds with those considered essential for ''good painting'' not much more than half a decade ago. But then, going against the grain to do the impossible is sometimes what art is all about. Thanks to her (and to others of her generation), a directly romantic approach to painting is once again being legitimized. This may not be in effect for long, but for the present, it serves to enrich an art world that has been too narrowly focused for much too long.

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