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Guggenheim Museum highlights major art trends of past 40 years

Anyone interested in a crash course in post-World War II modernism -- under the most pleasant of circumstances -- should try to visit the Guggenheim Museum's summer exhibition here. It consists of 100 paintings, drawn from the museum's holdings and from private collections, that highlight most major art trends of the past four decades. Excellent representations of Abstract Expressionism, Color Field Painting, Pop Art, Hard Edge Painting, and Minimalism are on view, as well as important pictures by painters affiliated with Art Informel, Tachisme, Le Nouveau Realisme, Neo-Expressionism, and other recent movements.

``Painterly Visions: 1940-1984'' begins with three Dubuffets of the 1940s and ends with Enzo Cucchi's powerful, if a bit hysterical, ``The Mad Painter'' of 1981-82 and Anselm Kiefer's ``Seraphim'' of 1983-84. In between, the viewer will discover outstanding works of Mir'o, Gorky, Giacometti, de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, Reinhardt, Guston, Fontana, Johns, Lichtenstein, Diebenkorn, Stella, and Dibbets, as well as good to excellent examples by some other recent American and European painters.

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Almost everything is big and expansive, if not -- as in Mir'o's 1953 ``Painting'' and Lichtenstein's 1968 ``Preparedness'' -- huge and uncompromisingly direct. A visitor in time from the 1920s would be surprised at how open and aggressive modernism became by the late 1940s, and how committed American painters of the early 1950s were to size and boldness of gesture.

A visitor from the early 1970s, on the other hand, would be more than a little shocked at the abruptness with which the pendulum of taste has recently swung from the formal severity of a predominantly minimalist position to the emotional extravagances of Neo-Expressionism and recent post-modernist movements. No one in 1975, for instance, could possibly have foreseen that a work such as Cucchi's ``The Mad Painter'' would hang in the Guggenheim a decade hence, and that he, Chia (represented in this show by a very large canvas of running men), and Clemente would be revered as ``old masters'' by 1985's emerging crop of young painters.

If anything, this exhibition underscores the fact that modernism's evolution has not been logical or consistent, that it has, in fact, moved by jumps and starts that either appeared to contradict what had just occurred, or that seemed so far off base as to constitute something that could only be described as anti- or post-modern. Abstract Expressionism, for instance, came as a horrible surprise to those of the late 1930s and early 1940s who believed that abstraction should be rational and precise, just as Pop Art was seen as non-art, even as anti-art, by those for whom Pollock's and Rothko's canvases represented the fullest and purest expression to date of the modernist spirit.

It is fascinating to watch how modernism assimilates whatever is good about whatever is new, and then moves on at its own pace and in its own direction. It seems to have a life and a will of its own that mocks all prophecies as to where it is heading and how it will get there, as well as all claims that it is dead or running out of steam. Its major heroes, even its C'ezannes, Van Goghs, Picassos, Mondrians, Calders, and Pollocks, must join their talents and forces with its inexorable momentum and object ives.

As an artist, one is either in cahoots with modernism -- and so totally subject to its ``vision'' and drives -- or one is detached from and free of its profound pressures. To be a modernist is to be caught up in a particular kind of inner compulsion that demands a special form of creative obedience no non-modernist can fully understand. And the reverse also holds true: No modernist can comprehend the variety of choices open to someone not of the modernist persuasion or ``faith.''

Modernists live largely in the future, or in some better and more perfect world, and they will sacrifice almost everything to get a glimpse through art of that more fulfilling or ideal time or condition. Non-modernists, on the other hand, are more inclined to live in the present or the past, and to devote their creative lives to the reality and quality of what is or has been.

Both, however, create genuine art, although both tend to deny the truth of what the other does. What modernists and non-modernists produce may not be of equal importance -- although we cannot know until after our era ends -- but it is a fact that there is truth and quality in what each presents to the world, and that we can find it if we only take the time to look.

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This exhibition presents a significant portion of one side of this ongoing debate, and it does so as clearly as can be expected in a show assembled primarily from one museum's resources. I recommend it both as a viewing experience and as an easy to digest ``argument'' for modernism as it has evolved over the past 40 years.

I would suggest, however, that anyone who sees it keep in mind that it doesn't represent the entire story of post-1940 art. For that, I'm afraid, we must still go to a variety of sources, from galleries and artists' studios to important as well as out-of-the-way museums. No major institution has as yet seen fit to approach this matter on anything more than a limited or partisan basis, partly because so many of them include the word ``modern'' or ``contemporary'' in their names, and so feel they must lim it themselves to what is genuinely modern or contemporary -- or at least to what has been accepted as such by today's tastemakers.

At the Guggenheim Museum through Sept. 3.

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