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Painters of nouns and verbs

I'M not at all certain they'd agree, but I've long felt that most modernists can be divided into two general groups: those who paint ``nouns,'' and those who paint ``verbs.'' Thus Piet Mondrian, with his precisely defined, irreducible images of right angles and primary colors, is modernism's champion painter of ``nouns.'' And Jackson Pollock, with his passionate hurlings and dribblings of paint, is its outstanding producer of ``verbs.''

Not that these categories are exact or should be taken too seriously. No artist, and certainly no work of art, fits perfectly into any pigeonhole. And only a handful of painters systematically shape their styles to conform exclusively to a single point of view.

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Quite a few, in fact, move from one category to the other -- or jump back and forth between them -- as their careers advance. Wassily Kandinsky, for instance, began as a modest painter of ``nouns,'' established an international reputation as an enthusiastic ``verbalist,'' and then settled down to produce increasingly precise geometric abstractions.

And a few others, such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Rouault, Beckmann, and Rothko, achieved such a neat balance between the two extremes that it would be meaningless to attempt to categorize them along these lines.

But what's the point, one may well ask, of classifying artists in this fashion? Will it tell us anything important about their art or about why they paint? Or, better still, about how good they are?

Absolutely not, as far as the last question is concerned, and only in the most general sense in response to the other two. This is not an aid to critical judgment, but merely a simple and convenient device for gaining some measure of insight into the nature of work that is new and possibly disturbingly unfamiliar. We must, after all, have a clear idea of what we are looking at before we can begin to decide how good or important it is.

One way to achieve such an insight is by determining whether the primary emphasis of the painting in question is on what is depicted (be it representational or abstract) or on how it is painted. By asking ourselves whether everything in it is directed mainly toward establishing the reality, the actuality of the subject -- or toward conveying the artist's feelings, his or her passions or enthusiasms, through such formal means as exaggerated brushwork, heightened color, or structural distortions.

The former approach, as I see it, by concentrating on defining the subject's identity and form as clearly and objectively as possible, produces ``nouns.'' The latter, because it focuses on the painter's feelings and experiences and is primarily interested in transmitting energy and emotion, results in ``verbs.''

To illustrate this distinction, I've chosen a representative example from each category. Igor Galanin's ``Samovar'' is all ``noun,'' John Marin's ``Brooklyn Bridge'' is almost entirely ``verb.'' The former is a crisply delineated rendering of an object, in this case, a clearly identifiable Russian samovar. The latter is about an experience, the somewhat ecstatic one, the highly impressionable John Marin had one bright but windy morning in 1912 as he approached the Brooklyn Bridge.

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It is fascinating to see how totally these two pictures differ in motivation, conception, and execution. Galanin informs us fully of his subject's identity, shape, dimensions, texture, volume, and color, but allows none of his feelings toward it to show. True enough, he adds a touch of mystery by dramatizing the samovar's setting and by heightening its mood, but that is more a matter of effective picturemaking than of genuine self-revelation.

Marin, on the other hand, lets his emotions erupt like fireworks but tells us almost nothing of the structure that triggered them. In fact, if it weren't for the title and our familiarity with that particular bridge's famous pointed arches, we'd be at a loss to know where Marin was the morning he felt all that excitement.

There are other important differences. ``Samovar'' is serene and timeless, cool in mood and streamlined in execution. ``Brooklyn Bridge'' is an agitated, split-second occurrence and is so bursting with life that it seems to be ``happening'' at this very moment -- 74 years after it actually did occur and was translated into wash, color, and line.

Both artists have given us something very special. Thanks to Marin's extraordinary skill at transcribing emotion and sensation into a brilliantly effective -- and universally comprehensible -- form of pictorial shorthand, we can share a great deal of what he saw and felt so many years ago. And because Galanin was sufficiently intrigued by an old family heirloom to dignify and monumentalize it as a kind of cultural icon, we are able to enjoy the beautiful shapes and exquisite linear and coloristic nuances of a remarkably elegant, subtly evocative work of art.

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