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The Terra Firma Of Fine Art

October 03, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

We will have to come up with a new cliche. "Steady as a rock" doesn't make it anymore, not the way rocks behaved Thursday. Like floods and hurricanes, earthquakes are a cruel and strident lesson in our common humanity and our shared frailty in the face of forces that are of unthinkable and uncontrollable size.

But earthquakes are worse than floods and hurricanes. They shake us emotionally as well as physically, and the deepest aftershocks are in the soul, which feels that when the treasonable earth can no longer be trusted, betrayal is utter and absolute and nothing in life is certain but uncertainty.

Those of philosophical mind might note that by some splendid paradox it is really only the most fragile and abstract things we have that are beyond the reach of earthquakes and time and other damaging forces. Words, ideas, music seem shockproof.

Art is subject to the ravages of time, but because we have the good sense to cherish and protect it, its fragility becomes part of its defense, and there is a reassuring continuity and timelessness to be discovered on pieces of very old canvas.

A few days ago in New York and then in Washington I strolled through museums in quiet mornings and afternoons, on a kind of busman's holiday between assignments, seeking nothing but an appreciator's pleasures. I found them, and with them a startling sense of renewal.

In the marble temple Henry Clay Frick built on upper 5th Avenue to house his matchless collection, I felt as if for the first time (and it may have been) the way that men and women in the great portraits gaze back at you from across the centuries, frozen in their moments of time and yet eerily alive.

Here was Rembrandt's portrait of himself in age, unimpressed, calculating, suspicious to the point of hostility as he contemplates a world that had perhaps not yet honored him as the ages would.

And here were El Greco's St. Jerome and Holbein's resolute Thomas More, looking distinctly like an unflappable man for all seasons, and Bronzini's Lodovico Capponi, contemplating a time far removed from his own.

The historic names and the unhistoric names, the portrait sitters who would have been lost to time except for the genius of the artists, stare at us from the walls: proud, confident, arrogant, coy, seductive, wise, rich and occasionally poor, pious, contemplative and, in some inexplicable way, continuous and contemporary despite their period trimmings. (Truly: Here is a Goya duke who at first squint could be George Shultz, togged up for a fancy ball.)

Yet the genius of the capturing artists was neither exclusively distant in time, or European. A few blocks from the Frick, the Whitney Museum of American Art offers its extraordinary visual chronicle of our world: the portraits now less often of individuals than of places and moods, like Edward Hopper's empty but eloquent storefronts in "Early Sunday Morning" from 1930.

The surprise here--but not really a surprise--is how the jumbles, distortions, dribbles, stripes and daubs of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, which evoked many a merry laugh when they were newborn, can now be seen calmly, admiringly, affectionately. What once looked like chaotic design now seems, at its best, thoughtful and full of emotion, moving and sometimes jarring, eccentrically beautiful but, in its unfettered way, unquestionably beautiful.

The around-the-block lines at the Whitney have been for the Red Grooms show, some of it seen here first at the Temporary Contemporary. His huge, walk-in constructions--a ferryboat, a rodeo, a whole subway car with its lumpish riders and nutty ads and rocking floorboards that give the illusion of travel--are paint and papier-mache's finest hours.

They are wizard detonations of creative energies, gaudy commentaries on all that is energetically gaudy in our society. It is art as mass-audience fun; but it also has, so I felt, a tart aftertaste, as if to say that a lot of tawdry goes a long way.

Grooms' dragon of greed, squeezing the coinage and the bills out of a skyscraper, is a raucous delight with an ever-grinding jaw and darting tongue, but you do get the idea the artist is also trying to say something strong if not profound.

Even in the last hour before closing time at the National Gallery in Washington, there was a 20-minute wait to see Andrew Wyeth's portraits. Art, notoriety and graphic nudity are an unbeatable combination.

Whatever one thinks about the art in relation to all art and to Wyeth's earlier art, the exhibition is an engrossing study of the artistic process, from pencil sketch to finished portrait. But more than that, and even if you'd been living in a submarine and missed the notoriety, the viewer is all but commanded to invent a kind of emotional narrative from first sketch to the last painting.

Does there not seem to be a new intimacy readable between one sketch and the next? And why is the model so preoccupied and incessantly gloomy over the several years? (There was, as I recall, only one fleeting smile.) Was it the artist's wish? Boredom? Fatigue? Distaste? Dollar worries?

The narrative goes on, and rightly or wrongly you read into the sketches and paintings that the artist is moving away from the model and the intimacy, until at last Helga, seen from the back in her heavy coat against the Pennsylvania winter, is merely an anonymous object, like a tree, in the landscape.

There are, as with the Goyas and the Groomses and the Hoppers, reverberations that you carry with you, past the marble antiquities and into the sunlight of the waning afternoon.

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