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Four decades of extremes -- from abstracts, to realism, to anything goes

EVERYTHING changes, especially in art, and modernism after World War II was no exception. It was apparent as early as 1946 that its impact would soon be greater than ever. The only question was where the movement's new leaders would appear. Europe offered little hope. Some of its important innovators had died, and most of the rest had taken themselves out of the running. And to make things worse, the war had prevented significant talent from developing.

The only real hope lay in the United States. It had the power and sense of destiny to assume world leadership in political matters, and there was a general feeling that it could do the same in art. But how, and in what form? Regionalism and social-action painting were out, as were the various forms of modified European abstraction practied by a number of New Yorkers. What was needed, everyone agreed, was something fresh, dynamic, and able to take the world by storm.

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As though on cue, a number of painters dedicated to reconciling American drive and largeness of vision with modernist theory and tradition made themselves known.

Jackson Pollock was the first to step forward -- to widespread derision because of his ``drip and blob'' technique, but also to serious acclaim as the most likely candidate for the role of shining new star in the modernist firmament. With him came Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and several others, each of whom also quickly achieved star status.

Although they painted in different styles, all were joined by a common vision of art that was nonrepresentational and grandly gestural and improvisational. And that, for better or worse, would soon cause them to be grouped together under the banner of Abstract Expressionism.

Within a few short years, their movement had taken command, and it was acknowledged -- except by the dozens of good-to-excellent artists whose careers it had demolished -- as the most important and original in American history. With it, the center of world art moved from Paris to New York, and the face of European painting -- and to a lesser degree, its sculpture -- underwent a dramatic change.

Art became bigger, brasher, and increasingly more abstract. Paint was dribbled, hurled, or splashed with ever-greater abandon, and anyone who did not comply had very little chance of succeeding.

As the 1950s came to a close, groups of younger artists began to challenge Abstract Expressionism's supremacy. Various movements, such as ``hard edge,'' ``color field,'' and ``shaped canvas,'' attempted to bring what they perceived as system and order back to painting.

The main attack, however, came from a number of painters and sculptors frustrated by Abstract Expressionism's total rejection of any reference to external reality and by their own inability to fashion art within its format.

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They struck with a vengeance, making the 1958-64 period a time of painterly high jinks and wildly idiosyncratic behavior.

``Happenings'' -- informal theatrical events generally sponsored by galleries and extravagantly staged by the artists and their friends -- took the art world by storm.

The seeds of Pop Art were planted and nurtured by Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and others. And Minimalism began to assert itself in all its formal purity.

It was also the time when Op Art, which depended on dazzling optical effects, took center stage for a year or two; Jasper John and Frank Stella proved they were major artists; Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti in France and Francis Bacon in England reaffirmed their importance; and Pablo Picasso, Joan Mir'o, Henry Moore, and Alexander Calder sustained their reputations by continuing to produce significant art.

Photorealism, which called for large-scale, unedited, and unemotional replication of photographic images on canvas, caught on in the late '60s. It had none of the intellectual impact, however, of either Conceptual or Earth Art, both of which attracted some of the most imaginative talents of the 1965-75 period.

Conceptualism, in particular, by insisting that the idea and process by which it was manifested constituted the ``art'' of a work and not its physical form (which could be destroyed to exist only as a memory or as some form of documentation), dramatically expanded modern man's perception of the nature of art.

It could not, however, dispel the widely held belief that art also consisted of exquisitely fashioned objects, and that the sensitive depiction of people, places, and events did not violate art's finest values and ideals.

This became apparent with the emergence of the New Realists in the early '70s and of numerous highly individualistic figurative painters and sculptors toward the end of the decade. Modernist purists were appalled, and the cry went out that modernism was either dead or dying.

Whether or not it was depended on whom one asked. Many younger artists, as frustrated by their elders' ideas as the young Pop artists had been by those of the Abstract Expressionists, did not mind being identified as Post-Modernists -- especially when it became clear that the label was also being applied in the other arts.

By 1980, it was assumed by many that the greatest vitality and promise could be found in those youngsters who had set out to bring imaginative imagery and intense emotionalism back to painting -- even if that meant overturning the values of the older generations and attempting to convert what had been considered kitsch or trash in 1970 into high art.

Matters were complicated even further a year or two later by a veritable explosion of huge, provocatively painted, and garishly colored canvases in West Germany and Italy, and by a parallel development in America. Neo-Expressionism had arrived with a bang, threatening New York's position as the world art capital and making it clear that the strict formalist criteria by which art had been judged for so long were at least temporarily suspended.

The result was a livelier and more open gallery scene than the art world had experience in over two decades, and a situation in which artists of almost every persuasion had an opportunity to exhibit their work. This was welcomed by some and denounced by others, but almost all agreed that art had entered another crucial transitional period.

It would be several years at least before the death or resurrection or modernism could be accurately announced.

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