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The line between order and chaos

IT'S amazing how much of modernism's best art represents a victory over chaos. And how much of it wins out only at the very last minute. Take Jackson Pollock's ``drip-and-blob'' paintings, for instance, or, for that matter, the passionate 1940s and '50s canvases of Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, or Willem de Kooning. Anyone unaware of the history of Abstract Expressionism, or the contributions these artists made to post-World War II art, could easily mistake these works for the leftover dribblings of house painters, or the paint splashings of exuberant four-year-olds.

They appear so mindless and chaotic that many cannot take them seriously as art, and yet they were made by artists of uncommon sophistication, and rank high among the most significant paintings produced during the past half-century.

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Their secret lies in their frank, even blatant, painterliness, in their creators' ability to give expression to the quality and resonances of life through paint, color, shape, texture, rhythm, and line alone, and in their total avoidance of any reference to the way things appear.

Even more, they achieved the status of art in direct proportion to the success of the battles each of their artists fought between order and chaos, significance and self-indulgence, the beautiful and the merely pretty, true expression and the easy effect.

If it all sounds a bit like war, well, so indeed it was, but a war fought day in and day out in artists' studios, in the depths of their creative souls. Some fought harder than others. A few weakened quickly and dropped out. And as the movement began to catch on, more and more younger artists tried to whip up the necessary vision and enthusiasm to join in - but most failed, and were forced to enter the ranks of the hangers-on.

The victors, however, and among them must also be counted Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Theodoros Stamos, and Adolph Gottlieb, went on to international acclaim. Thanks to them, the United States, for the first time ever, dominated world art.

All this occurred over roughly a dozen years. It ended about 1958 when Abstract Expressionism began to fizzle out and Pop Art, with its emphasis on the popular and the banal, took over to become the leading art form.

For the next two decades, passionate painting remained unfashionable. But then, in the late 1970s, word spread around the world that a wild and woolly bunch of painters in West Germany and Italy were painting in a manner every bit as free-spirited and impassioned as that of the Expressionists of pre-World War I Germany or the Abstract Expressionists of post-World War II America.

And indeed they were. These younger painters, including such future international art stars as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Sandra Chia, and Francesco Clemente, held that art had been ``pure'' and objective long enough, that it was time to let things rip and to permit uninhibited paint and color once again to determine the nature and course of art.

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The Neo-Expressionists - for that is how they soon became known - believed in passion and power, and in the same confrontational approach to creativity that had characterized such earlier painters as Pollock and de Kooning. Each approached his canvas as though it were his opponent in a duel to the death, with no holds barred, and with the outcome depending entirely on character, intuition, and imagination.

None fought harder and emerged victorious more often than Enzo Cucchi, a young Italian born in 1950. True enough, he started out rather slowly, with a number of very large, garishly colored canvases that depended a bit too much on a primitive and highly personalized form of mythological imagery for their identity and impact. Even so, they were effective enough for Diane Waldman to include several in her important 1982 exhibition of new Italian art at New York's Guggenheim Museum, the show that alerted America to what the younger Italian artists were up to.

Remarkable things were about to happen, however. In 1983, Cucchi burst out with a series of huge, searing paintings that not only took the critics by surprise, but catapulted him to the top rung of art-world importance as well. And no wonder, for these canvases, the best of which depicted single flying roosters hurtling upward toward the sky from within restrictive enclosures or against bleak landscapes, were among the most exultant paintings to come out of Europe in several decades.

Almost mural-size, with rough, lacerated surfaces, mounds of blackish and earth-colored pigment, blunt, brutal draftsmanship, and stark, painful imagery, they yet pulsated with life and the kind of hope that impels itself as far as possible from despair.

Each and every one represented a victory, not only for art, which proved once again its capacity for moral greatness, but for the artist as well. By battling it out with his demons in his studio, Cucchi had managed somehow to find hope and assurance for himself in the midst of chaos, confusion, and despair, as well a visual evidence of that hope for us through his art.

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