What is art? Inspiration, not geometry

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 01, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Since art is just a matter of drawing the line somewhere, nobody is exactly shocked over art authorities drawing the financial line somewhat beneath the $7,000 figure which Fred Salinger was anticipating.

In fact, they drew it about $6,960 below his most meager anticipation.

Last December, Salinger, a retired engineer here who collects rugs, lamps and bargain art, bought for $40 what appeared to be a genuine Utrillo sketch, which is never any kind of a bargain. It is always expensive, as recognized by the fact that art lovers mention Utrillo's last name all by itself, and nobody has to say, "Utrillo? Irving 'Swifty' Utrillo? Wasn't he a backup shortstop with the Orioles in '55?''

(Actually, the artist Utrillo's first name was Maurice, but lovers of great art bypass his first name, the way aficionados always do with great artists, such as DaVinci or DiMaggio or DaHemmingway.)

Nine months ago, at an auction here, Fred Salinger bought a pencil sketch of a Paris street scene. It looked like a Utrillo. (Maurice, not Swifty.) So Salinger (Fred, not J.D.) took it to Jay Fisher, curator of prints, drawings and photographs for the Baltimore Museum of Art.

''It could be Utrillo,'' said Fisher (Jay, not Eddie), who suggested sending it to art experts at Sotheby's Galleries. A local representative for the gallery took it to New York and then came a letter: Sotheby's wanted to put it up for auction, expecting it could fetch somewhere between $7,000 and $25,000.

Slight problem: Before the auction, a specialist in impressionist art at Sotheby's sent photos of the sketch to Gallerie Petrides, the Paris gallery which handled Utrillo's work. Two experts there raised doubts about its pedigree. They didn't exactly say it looked more like a Swifty than a Maurice, but they couldn't be certain Salinger (Fred, not Pierre) had the real thing.

''At Sotheby's, we have to stand behind a 100 percent guarantee of authenticity,'' a specialist told The Sun's Doug Birch. ''In this case there is some question.''

What does this do to Salinger, aside from making him $6,960 less wealthy than his most humble anticipation? Actually, he seems to be doing fine.

''I don't feel cheated, not at all,'' he said yesterday. ''I'm more intrigued by the whole thing. I'll probably hang the drawing in my house.''

There, he can look at it any time he wants, which is the original and best purpose of art the last time anyone looked. It may not be an original Utrillo, but whoever copied it was pretty good. At its best, the effort wasn't an attempt at plagiarism but a gesture at capturing the genius of the original master. In other words, a labor of love.

Under those circumstances, why not just enjoy the sketch for the simple loveliness of its lines? Does it matter if a drawing by Utrillo was sketched by a Maurice or some Swifty, if the final lines are just as lovely?

''I can't tell you,'' Salinger said. ''You're asking me to explain the entire concept of possessing a unique item, and I can't. I don't see where it would detract from its inherent beauty although, for me, I bought the thing just for the hell of it.''

So why can't we treasure the gifted copy as much as the original? Why should it detract from our enjoyment of a work of art if all the lines are in place and all the colors perfectly blended?

Here's why: If it's merely lines we see, then it isn't art, it's just craft. If it's merely colors we admire, or technique, then we miss the original heartfelt impulse from which it sprang.

Utrillo, born in Paris in 1883, produced thousands of oils, pencil sketches and prints before his death in 1955. There's a history at work here, of both an artist and his time and place.

''There's a quality that represents the personality of the artist,'' Jay Fisher said yesterday. ''If the copy is enjoyable to you, that's fine. But we look at art as more than the work itself. It's a piece of the artist's ex

See OLESKER, 4B

From 1B

pression.

''Imitation is never as good as originality. When you come up with the idea yourself, it comes from you. When you're imitating, it's just superficial. I can say this with confidence: The more I look, the more I can tell when it's come from the artist's heart.''

Art is more than simply drawing

the line somewhere. That's just geometry. Whoever copied Utrillo may have done it with admiration, but not with the master's original inspiration.

The lesson about the economics of art is: It's not what's in a name, but what was the impulse? That's the lesson about enjoying it, too: It does make a difference that it was a Utrillo named Maurice and not just someone with a Swift stroke.

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