Critic's choice of new art books; The Random House Library of Painting and Sculpture, edited by David Piper. New York: Random House. 4-volume slipcase edition. $85 until Dec. 31, $100 thereafter.
If I were going to start an art school on the moon and could take an absolute minimum of art books along, I would include this new four-volume set. And for the good reason that it is so skillfully packed with important art information that it would leave room for other more specialized books.
The ''Random House Library'' consists of four volumes: ''Understanding Art: Themes, Techniques, and Methods''; ''The History of Art 1: From the Beginnings to the Late 18th Century''; ''The History of Art 2: From the French Revolution to the Present''; and ''Dictionary of Artists and Art Terms.''
All four are profusely illustrated with generally excellent color reproductions, black-and-white illustrations, and diagrams and maps. The layout is intelligent and to the point, with a good balance of picture to text. And the latter is clear and just detailed enough to answer basic questions without drowning the reader in overly specialized information.
The most valuable of the four volumes is the one devoted to themes, techniques, and methods. It is an extraordinarily precise and illuminating account of the what, why, and how of art. It should leave anyone who has carefully read it with a rough but solid notion of what art is all about. It is particularly remarkable in that it discusses everything from the most profound issues of creative motivation and thematic variation to the differences between ink-on-gesso, gouache, tempera, and oil-painting, and it does so easily and naturally.
This matter-of-fact treatment is most impressive and should do a great deal to instill a healthy respect for art in place of the false sense of awe too often taught by example.
The two volumes devoted to art history do it as much justice as is possible in a total of roughly 520 pages. Here again, illustrations and text are in excellent balance: What the words cannot explain, the pictures can - or vice versa. Two pages, for instance, are given over to painting in Victorian Britain. Everything essential is included in the text - and there are 10 excellent reproductions of paintings, seven of them in color.
Major artists also frequently rate two pages, with anywhere from four to 10 illustrations detailing the evolution or the range of their art. Michelangelo rates four pages - as indeed he should - and in those the reader is shown a portrait of the artist, two of his magnificent drawings, six pieces of sculpture , six paintings, a photograph of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and a photograph of the interior of the chapel itself.
Rembrandt is presented through a succession of self-portraits dating from 1629 when he was 23, to one painted in 1669, the year of his death.
And as far as the art of more recent date, well, that too is intelligently and clearly presented, with a fair balance of the representational and nonrepresentational, and a concise explanation of post-World War II art.
It is only when we get to the fourth volume and begin to read some of the biographical sketches that minor problems arise. What does it mean, for instance , when we read that Jack Levine's ''later works turn their attention to the middle class''? And why aren't some of the biographical sketches of living artists updated to include recent activities? It simply isn't true, for instance , that Stamos has returned to ''more complex forms.'' And why is Moses Soyer listed in such a fashion as to indicate that he was the leading painter in the family - when that position clearly belongs to his brother Raphael?
But then, I suppose that is carping. Considering the overall quality of this work, these are minor matters. I do know that they would by no means prevent me from taking this excellent library along on my trip to the moon.