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For almost a century, Kokoschka advanced his art

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was one of a small handful of major 20th-century painters who was truly as bold and free-spirited in his extreme old age as he had been in his youth.

Abundant proof can be found in the Kokoschka memorial exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery here. Sixty paintings ranging from 1908 through 1975 trace the full extent of his art, from the early Expressionist portraits and figure studies with which he first established his international reputation, through the more colorful and broadly painted works of his middle period, to the wildly exuberant and brilliantly colored paintings of his later years. All are excellent examples, including some works not previously seen in New York.

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The Vienna that Kokoschka knew as a student shortly after the turn of the century was as lively and stimulating as any young man with talent could hope for. It was the place and the time for dramatic new ideas in philosophy, literature, theater, and architecture, as well as in music (Mahler, Berg, Schonberg), and painting (Schiele, Klimt).

Kokoschka fitted in beautifully. Before long his talents as writer, essayist , dramatist, and painter had assured him a place among the intelligentsia and avant-garde of Vienna. But it didn't take long for painting to take precedence over all other forms of expression. It did so mainly through a succession of extraordinary portraits notable for their dark, nervous, and highly brooding nature. In these, his subjects revealed as much about their inner realities as they did about their physical appearance, if not more. Faces were particularly taut, introspective, and wary. Hands rested uncomfortably on laps, twisted or turned, or clutched at each other. But most noteworthy of all was the almost seismographic sensitivity with which Kokoschka approached the tensions of his subjects, and the remarkably compassionate and yet detached manner in which he translated them into line and paint.

This exhibition includes several portraits of this period. Of these I found "Portrait of Felix Albrecht Harta" (with its painfully beautiful hands) and the famous "Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat" especially successful and moving.

The attractions of Berlin drew Kokoschka there in 1910, and for a while he served as an illustrator in that city. He also produced one of his plays and two lithographic series before being caught up in World War I. From 1917 to 1924 he taught at the Dresden Academy, then spent the next seven years traveling widely. Although he returned to Vienna in 1931, the Nazis' rise to power caused him to flee to Prague in 1934, then to England in 1937, where he settled until moving permanently to Switzerland in 1948.

Wherever he went, he painted. In the process he produced a remarkable record of the places he had seen and the political and cultural leaders he had met. Of the former, his mountain landscapes and his "portraits" of cities are the most outstanding. No one in this century has caught the crisp quality of mountain air or the majestic sweep of distant Alps against the sky better than he. "Gstaad" (1967-68) is a minor masterpiece of loose, vibrant landscape painting. And his studies of London, Prague, Istanbul -- and most particularly "Downtown Manhattan With the Empire State Building" -- are extraordinary works, catching the spirit and quality of these cities without too many specifics.

The marvel of the show lies in its evidence of his constant creative growth, and of his unwillingness to call it quits as an artist at any point in his life. As a matter of fact, his last paintings are the most passionately vibrant and colorful of all, and are so pulsatingly full of life they hardly even seem like paintings but more like energy made visible. Formal purists and admirers of the coolly realistic may be offended by the raw passion of these late works, but anyone the least bit aware of how very difficult it is to capture light and life on canvas will have to be impressed.

This first-rate show will remain on view at the Marlborough Gallery through June 13. Yvonne Thomas

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Expressionist works of another sort are on view at the Ericson Gallery here.These are Abstract-Expressionist paintings created by Yvonne Thomas during 1955-62, when Abstract-Expressionism had peaked and was already on the decline.

While the movement itself may have run out of steam, numbers of talented artists scattered throughout the country (but localized mainly in New York and San Francisco) had not, and were still hard at work carrying on Abstract-Expressionist principles. Among these was Yvonne Thomas, a young painter who had first been introduced to these ideas in 1948 and later joined "The Subject of the Artist," the group that formed the basis of what was to become known as the New York School.

Here, working closely with Motherwell, Rothko, Newman, etc., Miss Thomas developed her own personal brand of Abstract-Expressionism. This consisted of loosely brushed, spacious canvases of controlled color, in which occasional geometric forms were intercut and blunted by broad areas of rapidly applied strokes and swirls of paint. The resulting effect was open, atmospheric, and muted -- with the color remaining generally low-key.

It's a small but effective -- and oddly elegant -- show. I was particularly taken by the large 1959 oil "Fable," which combines airiness and monumentality in fairly equal portions -- and which reminds us that good painting is good painting regardless of the form it takes.

This very worthwhile show will remain open to the public at the Ericson Gallery through June 6.

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