The many mask of modern art
We're generally more disturbed by what's left out in very advanced art than by what's left in. Thus, Monet's contemporaries were upset mainly because he rejected the heavy-handed academic painting techniques considered essential for the creation of Fine Art. And the early abstract painters were ridiculed because they excluded any reference to reality's physical appearance in their work.
In our own day, Minimalism never quite caught on because it went too far in excluding certain elements the public refused - even after almost a century of modernist reductions and exclusions - to divorce from art. And today's latest painterly invasions from abroad are often condemned for their lack of taste, and for their denial of modernist formal ideals.
In the midst of all this change, however, there is one person professionally obliged to keep his head, and not to overreact whenever something ''important'' is excluded from the new. The art critic must straddle the past and the future, and must remain aware of both the existence of artistic standards and ideals, and of the fact that unless art continually renews itself, it dies.
Unfortunately, the longer his involvement with art, the more cynical the art critic can become. He learns quickly that the new isn't necessarily better than the old, and that some of the qualities the younger generations decide aren't essential to art are actually of prime importance. And there comes the time (much as he may hate to admit it) when he begins to feel that his sensibilities have been stretched to the absolute limit by the continual bombardment of the new - that the time has come to say, ''This far I'll go, and no further.''
And yet, something within him almost always refuses to agree, and manages to stir his sensibilities and to draw them out.
Even so, an art critic must take care. A too-easy acceptance of the new can lead to an uncritical passion for mere novelty, and to an attitude that can deny artistic legitimacy to anything not currently in fashion.
The American art world is incredibly wasteful. We treat most of our older artists as though they were so much garbage to be disposed of and forgotten. I'm continually amazed at the number of excellent artists of the 1930s and '40s who are still hard at work, but who haven't been able to exhibit their art in any serious way since the end of World War II. Most are as good as ever, and a few are producing exceptional work. But as far as the art world is concerned, they're culturally nonexistent.
Anyone reading our art magazines or visiting our museum survey exhibitions is very much mistaken if he thinks he's getting more than an inkling of the full range and depth of American art. He's much more likly to get one point of view repeated over and over again, thanks to the fact that altogether too many dealers, critics, curators, and collectors have developed their herd instincts above all others. This may make them much less perceptive about art, or about what it takes to produce it, while it makes them absolute geniuses at knowing what is ''in'' and what isn't, and how to avoid the fatal error of liking something before or unless it has received the approval of the ''serious'' art community.
Certain collectors will inevitably be the first in their communities to buy the latest in art, no matter what form it takes. All that matters is that it be ''in'' and ''advanced,'' and can thus inform the community of its owner's cultural insights and leadership. The sad fact, of course, is that it often has the opposite effect, and broadcasts to everyone how foolishly ''sheeplike'' such a collector really is.
No, art is more than fashion, and an art critic is more than an art-fashion expert or guide. He may perceive that art must continually renew itself, but he must also understand that quality and artistic truth do not become dated - only artistic fashions. And specifically, he must be aware that some of the work being done by today's out-of-fashion artists may well outlast that being created by the current darlings of the art world.
One of this country's best painters - in-fashion or out - is Joyce Treiman. No contemporary American artist can paint better or more exultantly than she, and yet, whenever I mention her name to our younger critics and curators, I almost always receive a blank stare. Since she is neither ''new'' nor ''emergent ,'' hasn't carved out an art-historical niche for herself, and doesn't represent an important movement or formal ideal, she doesn't exist as far as they are concerned.
It doesn't matter that she's an excellent draftsman and a superb painter who's had over thirty solo exhibitions (some in museums), has been seen in over a hundred important group shows, has won over two dozen major awards, and has many devoted and enthusiastic collectors. That doesn't count as far as our current New York tastemakers are concerned. If, however, she were to hang her paintings upside-down, paint them as crudely as possible, or smear her canvases with the most garish of colors, I'm certain they'd pay attention. And if she stripped her art of all she considered important, and shaped it strictly in accordance with today's fashionable painterly ideals, I'm certain they'd list her among the most vital American artists of our day.
Well, I'm already convinced that she is - just as I'm convinced that if the phrase ''among the best'' has any meaning at all, it most definitely applies to her. Her range is extraordinary. Her drawings are delicate, incisive, and remarkably probing, and reflect a true draftsman's ability to transform form, character, and movement into a few lines or textures.
In addition, she is a master of all traditional painting techniques and could , if she wished, become a brilliant technical virtuoso. She does not, however, wish it, and paints instead in a manner that is both respectful of such older painters as Rembrandt, Eakins, and Bonnard, and dramatically contemporary in mood and attitude.
As an artist, Treiman is a clear-eyed observer, a philosopher, and a sensualist. Her paintings range from complex allegories, pointed social commentary, incisive portraits, to lyrical landscapes, deeply romantic florals, and exuberant explosions of pure color. First and foremost, however, she's a painter, a human being with the ability to identify so deeply with paint and color that she and they become one during the creative act. That's rare enough on any level, but particularly so on hers.