Paintings to walk around in
Even art critics deserve an occasional vacation from the hothouse atmosphere of the big-city gallery world, with its overabundance of gimmicks and plans for overnight success and its tendency to equate quality with what sells, talent with effectiveness, and greatness with whatever is biggest.
I am due for just such a few days off. But I'm not going very far. My vacation will be brief and will require neither packing nor planning. It will consist of a few leisurely walks through the Frick Collection, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art - and of my writing exclusively on what I love most about certain kinds of art.
Since it is summer and my thoughts keep turning to cool mountain lakes, fragrant forests, blue skies over rolling fields, and small animals glimpsed dashing about behind bushes, I intend to look at, enjoy, and write only about such art as gives form to these realities. I will pass by work that insists I must first ''understand'' what the artist is doing, that proclaims it is good precisely because it seems so bad, or that shouts for attention, but then has nothing to say when I respond.
I will concentrate on paintings I can enter and walk around in, and ignore those I can only look at. For that I shall choose the landscapes of Bruegel, Van Ruisdael, Constable, Friedrich, and the Hudson River School rather than those by Claude, Poussin or Cezanne - no matter how I may prefer the latter at other times. I will delight in the great landscape images of the Chinese and Japanese, enjoy the visual delicacies spread out in Near Eastern miniatures, and savor the charms and details of nature spelled out in the watercolors and drawings of Durer, Rembrandt, Palmer, Turner, and Redon.
I will relish the tactful revelations of nature's most intimate secrets made by Klee, Dove, Graves, and Stamos, and will accept with gratitude the calls of Marin, Burchfield, Curry, Wyeth, Hopper, and Porter to share with them what they loved about their local scenery. And, if I feel particularly brave, I'll haul out the drawings I made in Central Park over two decades ago and see how well they hold up.
In choosing the landscapes I'll enjoy writing about, I'll be looking not so much for faithfulness to nature's appearances as for evidence that it was approached lovingly and with respect. It's been my experience that only those who love it can turn what nature is into art, and that only those who respond respectfully to nature's regenerative powers will fashion art that is alive.
Life, after all, is what art is all about. The painter who cannot transmit something of the life-force through paint isn't an artist - no matter how brilliant or dedicated he or she might otherwise be. And if that is true of art in general, it is particularly so of landscape painting.
The problem with nature as a subject for art is that it is everywhere and is everything, and it becomes more grand, elusive, complex, beautiful - you name it - the more it is studied. Confronted by nature in all its glory, it is difficult for an artist to know where to begin.
The true artist ultimately discovers just how much of nature he or she can transform into art - and what formal and technical devices will best accomplish it. John Constable, working directly in the English countryside, translated what he saw and felt into thickly painted, solidly constructed oil studies. Whereas John Marin, poised on a rock along the Maine coast, translated what he saw and felt into dots, dashes, washes, and slashes of watercolor paint that resembled nothing so much as a private pictorial code.
Both artists loved what they painted, however, and were able to share that love with us. This ability of art to communicate emotion and experience helps us to break down national and cultural barriers and to roam throughout human history. With minimum effort, we can reexperience the awe a 12th-century Chinese painter felt before a particularly majestic mountain range, the delight a 15 th-century Persian miniaturist felt before a desert garden full of flowers, or the intimations of life's meanings that overcame Caspar David Friedrich in the early 19th century when he came upon a cluster of dead trees near a deserted monastery.
I'm especially fond of those artists who project an enthusiasm for life. High on my list of painters who thoroughly enjoyed the great outdoors is Winlsow Homer. His watercolors and oils prove not only that he loved nature but that he also, in some ways, saw himself as its equal. Not arrogantly, certainly, but casually and lovingly in the manner of a good friend.
Homer, as a matter of fact, would be the ideal guide for my vacation. His landscapes can definitely be ''entered,'' and the life he depicted in them is obviously low key and refreshing. If I spend a few days with them I'll go hiking up and down mountains, fishing in quiet Canadian lakes, canoeing in dark, narrow streams, trailing after deer, or simply sitting beside an open fire while Homer fries the fish we caught.
To some that may not sound like much of a vacation, but to me it sounds ideal. Especially if I can take my own watercolors along and work beside him.