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A then-and-now look at modern American artists

Summer gallery exhibitions tend to be lazy affairs: a few works by the gallery's stable of artists, a few pieces by younger artists under consideration as gallery regulars, and, if possible, a handful of borrowed paintings by previous gallery artists who have gone on to bigger and better things.

It's a convenient way for a dealer to stay open during the summer without the fuss and expense of a major show to test his patrons' response to new talent, and to brag a bit about past successes.

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The Alan Frumkin Gallery her, however, has tried a different tack. Its small but excellent summer exhibition contrasts recent works by gallery artists with paintings and sculptures done by them in the early 1960s. The artists included, each of whom is represented by two pieces, are Robert Arneson, Joan Brown, Peter Saul, William Wiley, Jack Beal, Alfred Leslie, and Philip Pearlstein.

The show consists of two very different types of art: witty, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek pokes at human foibles and attitudes, and realistic, straightforward, and objective studies of the hman face and figure.

Informality reigns in the former group. Colors tend to be bright and lively, compositions casual and loosely designed. There is an air of indifference to pictorial structure in these works, especially those by Robert Arneson and Peter Saul. But that proves to be deceptive, and is more a matter of slyness of attitude than carelessness of craft. Among this group I was particularly taken with William Wiley's 1979 ink and watercolor drawing, "A Different Floored."

It's the latter group of realistic paintings, however, that carries the main burden and sustains the greater interest in this show.

Jack Beal, Alfred Leslie, and Philip Pearlstein hardly need any introduction, for they are among the top stars of this country's current crop of new realists. Their very large, sharp-focus, and objective figurative paintings have put them center stage at a time when realism is once again flexing its muscles. These artists are, in fact, among the most effective champions of the figurative tradition in American art today.

I've never quite known what to make of Philip Pearlstein. He's one of the easiest to respect and one of the most difficult to like of all recent American Painters. One cannot help respecting his total professionalism, his extraordinary gifts of design and draftsmanship. He is one of the very few painters working today who has actually done something interesting and novel with the human figure. In many ways he is our most serious student of the human nude, our most steely-eyed painter of studio pictures.

He is altogether impressive, and yet I can't help feeling that he is too cool and detached. At least he is for my tastes. And what disturbs me is that he seems to be getting cooler and more detached all the time.

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His two works on view in this show bear me out. His earlier painting has all the characteristics of his mature style, but these qualities have not yet been perfected -- I'm tempted to say ritualized -- to the degree they are in his 1979 "Female Nude on Chief's Blanket." For all his impressiveness, there is something a little too slick about this later work, something a bit too calculating. I had the uncomfortable feeling looking at these two paintings that while Pearlstein has gotten much more facile as a painter of pictures over the years, he hasn't grown much as an artist. And that's a pity, for he's among the best we have.

Jack Beal's contributions to the show are a self-portrait of 1963 and another painted this year. The earlier one is a jolly, dashing piece of work similar in spirit to early self-portraits by Rubens and Ensor. Its cocky self-assurance is delightful -- as is its impulsive freedom of execution.

His recent self-portrait is another matter entirely. It is sober, dry, and extremely calculated. All the slapdash enthusiasm of youth is gone, and in their place we are confronted by a wary, middle-aged man peering out at us.

The two figure studies by Alfred Leslie are simple, effective -- and huge. But their size fits them, and I didn't have the feeling that they could just as well have been painted a third or half as big, something I often feel in front of the works of some of the other new realists.

I liked both of his paintings very much. "Donna Kaulenas," painted in 1977, is Leslie at his best.

If at all possible, these paintings by Pearlstein, Beal, and Leslie should be seen in conjunction with the Whitney Museum's current exhibition of American figurative art of this century. all three artists -- as well as Peter Saul and Robert Arneson -- are represented by major works in that show, and, as such, can be viewed more fully within the larger context of the recent realist explosion.

All three can highly accomplished painters. All are important figures at this point in American Art.And all raise serious questions about the direction American painting will be taking during the rest of this century.

This exhibition at the Allan Frumkin Gallery will run through Aug. 15.

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