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Inness In The Realm Of The Not Normal

March 09, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

There is a state known as Normal where everybody wants to abide at least part of the time but nobody knows quite where the place is. Maybe it's over there in the little house with the little family that lives like the Three Bears. Maybe it's down at the lodge with the guys having a few beers or just walking alone in the woods at twilight.

Wherever it is, everybody wants to live there part of time partly because other people expect it of them. Most people think that really they would rather dwell in the realm of the Exotic but the prospect of its strangeness scares them almost as much as their fear of the disapproval of the Others who want them to live in Normal.

One of the things the world most admires about modern artists is that they have the gumption to bash off into the tangles of the Exotic to bag whatever outlandish game lurks there. The hallmark of the modern world and its art is oddness, which makes it all the harder to find Normal, or so we believe. We tend to think that Normal resides comfortably somewhere in the past.

In recent years the society recoiled from its own exciting insecurities and started searching for Normal in Back Then, building seaside dwellings for singles in the style of Nova Scotia fishermen's cottages, cooing over good-hearted veterinarians spreading good cheer in the English countryside on "Masterpiece Theatre" and generally turning museum storerooms inside out to find some nice normal art.

An excellent example of this trend is seen in the County Museum of Art presentation of the painting of George Inness, on view to May 11. Inness (1825-1894) was an American landscapist who made the sort of picture that used to put you right off when you were a kid on fledgling visits to the art museum.

Uh-oh, I better not stay in here. If I do, the guard will come in at closing time and find me asleep standing up and Ma will say: "No dessert for you. Who do you think you are, a horse?"

Man, I hope I never grow up. Imagine getting to a place where you actually like stuff to be this boring.

Now that we are grown up and the excitement of the world has turned to aggravation, four large galleries containing 63 calm afternoons and soothing sunsets should be just the ticket. Just a song at twilight when the lights are low and the flickering shadows softly come and go. . . . Should be as comfy as a peanut butter samwidge in Grandma's kitchen. Nice and normal.

Wrong. Estimates of George Inness' reputation have veered from Greatest American Landscape Painter to John Canaday's "wildly uneven, maddeningly divided between heavy pretension and poetic realization" and back. Inness has been credited with single-handedly blasting the native Hudson River School out of its provincialism and into the international mainstream.

None of that matters nearly as much as the realization that this quintessentially Normal art is not normal at all, but a troubled, even frightened art desperately trying to keep on track. It makes you wonder where the revivalists ever got the notion that a century as vertiginously volatile as the 19th could ever be the home of serenity except in isolated patches.

Canaday was right about Inness' artistic character, including both pretension and poetry, but what makes you crazy is that it was not now-this-and-now-that but both at once. An uneasy melding of contradictory feeling characterizes Inness' art. In some ways, the only binding glue in it is a heavy-handed internal argument that bogs the work like a debate between old men.

Inness was born in Newburgh, N.Y., to an anonymously comfortable middle-class merchant family. He actually received modest early training as an artist but liked to claim he was self-taught. He eventually made four long trips to Europe where he soaked up everything from the pastoral grandiosity of 17th-Century masters Claude and Poussin to the somewhat lugubrious naturalism of the contemporary French Barbizon school. His penchant for odd combinations of sensibility shows in an early (1856) view, "The Juniata River." It has the stiff, labored sweetness of self-taught art combined with the formal aplomb of classical landscape. The effect is that of a priggish provincial youth entering a European drawing room practicing outdated etiquette learned from a book and absolutely sure he is the height of correctness.

Lovable and irritating. Dull and amusing.

By 1860, Inness could paint a "Twilight" with a sunset spectacular enough to threaten Albert Bierstadt. But with an intransigence already growing familiar, he combines it with a landscape so pedestrian that Bakersfield looks lush by comparison. He seems to be saying something about a life that is a sad blend of the transcendental and the ordinary. The specific emotional vectors change in Inness' art but there is a consistent struggle against disappointment, worry and depression, a constant effort to be Normal.

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