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1981-82: poor season -- with glints of strong promise

From a strictly professional viewpoint, the 1981-82 New York art season has been close to a disaster -- with only a very small handful of superlative museum and gallery shows, a few more that were good and of general interest, and literally hundreds that were of interest mainly to the artists, their families, and their friends.

From a more open and long-range perspective, however, it has been a season of considerable promise and some hope. Not enough to lead a responsible art critic to predict a dramatic upsurge of quality over the next few years, or to cause him to declare that he had found a new genius or two, but certainly promising enough to leave him with the feeling that some genuine new talent is about to emerge, and that the creative impasse the art world has found itself in for the past two decades or so may soon be at an end.

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Even such limited optimism about the future of art in this country is guarded , however, for there are too many imponderables to consider, too many subjective issues to take into account.

What, for instance, is the current and future status of modernism? What are its ambitions? Its resources? Will it redefine and reextend itself, as some insist it will, or is it already dead and gone, as many others claim?

And what of the continuing upsurge of representational art? Or the fascination with imagism, neo-expressionism, post-mo-dern-ism -- and the new pattern, narrative, and decorative painting? And what, most of all, do we make of those increasingly numerous younger artists whose work fits into no category and is, as a matter of fact, designed to be either totally idiosyncratic or ''objective,'' and of absolutely no school or style?

All these questions -- and many more - keep the art-world kettle boiling, and make the task of trying to prophesy art a thankless and impossible one. Any sensible art critic realizes that it is in the nature of his relationship to the artists of his time that they and not he are the ones who will determine the future course of art -- that whatever shrewd prophecies he might come up with will very likely be exploded by a young painter in Chicago or a group of artists working away in Maine.

But even if he doesn't make an issue of it, the critic is bound to come to certain conclusions. He cannot, after all, see between 2,000 and 2,500 shows a year, look at what artists are doing in their studios, and keep up with the art magazines without having some overall reactions to what he has seen. I am certainly no exception.

My strongest impression of the season just ending is that it was as much a season of strong personalities as of art. After all, the biggest new star was not an artist but a dealer. Mary Boone is just about the most influential dealer of new talent around. She has the power to give instant recognition to almost anyone she chooses, and the knack of doing it with such authority that criticism of her choices ends up seeming petty, ignorant, or vindictive -- if not downright reactionary.

That she is also bright, young, and very knowledgeable does not make it any easier for her competitors, or for those -- unlike me and most others -- who may see her as little more than an opportunist. Whatever time may decide about her artists, and the way she has brought them to dramatic public attention, there is simply no denying the fact that she has enlivened the art scene, and brought a bit of true controversy back to it.

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Her two galleries, confronting one another across the width of West Broadway in SoHo, are twin attractions for streams of younger artists hungry for their share of fame and glory -- and the piles of money that success in art can bring nowadays. Watching these starry-eyed and ambitious youngsters absorbing -- many quite uncritically -- everything on these galleries' walls always reminds me of similar scenes in the Sidney Janis and Betty Parsons galleries during the heyday of abstract-expressionism, and then, a bit later, in the galleries of Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp.

But while there may be a parallel between the excitement engendered by Mary Boone and her ''stable'' of artists, and that in the air during abstract expressionism's finest hour and pop art's eruption onto the American art scene, I feel that what we are seeing here is a sort of ''Last Hurrah!,'' an ending of a period rather than a beginning. (On the other hand, I'm very certain that Mary Boone will be around for a long, long time.)

For all the talk about how the flamboyantly eccentric and difficult-to-categorize art of Julian Schnabel and David Salle represents a revitalization that will pull today's art out of its doldrums, I cannot help but feel that their art actually reflects the kind of frenzied activity usually associated with mice trapped in a cage -- that, rather than clarifying art's future, it is doing its best to obfuscate it.

I'm fast coming to the conclusion that our 20th-century habit of hurling ourselves into painterly extremes every time we come up against what appears to be a creative dead end is altogether too similar to the way nations declare war upon their neighbors whenever internal problems get out of hand. In both cases there is a great deal of activity, a great deal of shouting and flag-waving, but when all is said and done, nothing has really been accomplished. Once the smoke clears, the problems reappear, almost precisely as before.

My optimism about the future, guarded as it may be, is predicated upon our increasing awareness of this fact, and upon our insistence that a more viable and intelligent creative alternative be found. It is here that I am the most optimistic, having been impressed by the number of talented younger artists who refuse to play this art-historical game, and who are setting out very much on their own to shape an art from the ground up.

They may lack the flash and the glamour of some of their more famous contemporaries, but I suspect that that is all to the good. After all, do we really need all that big-time glamour and glitter? What, indeed, is the point of this continued hurling of ourselves against the limitations of a certain perception of art? Isn't that rapidly becoming as futile and ridiculous as the idiocy behind ''The Charge of the Light Brigade''?

As to the season just ending, at the very top of my list were the Arshile Gorky and Giorgio Morandi retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum, the current Giorgio de Chirico exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim's huge and utterly fascinating survey of Russian constructivist art from the George Costakis collection.

All four exhibitions will remain in my memory as important events -- with the Morandi survey doing double duty for having helped me achieve a fuller insight into that haunting and deceptively ''simple'' painter. I've thought of his show often since its closing, and am beginning to wonder if Morandi might not yet be acknowledged as one of this century's five or six finest painters.

Another major and impressive show -- this time at the Whitney Museum -- was ''Roy Lichtenstein - 1970-1980.'' This 10-year survey of one of pop art's original group was bright, brassy, brilliant -- in a shrewd sort of way -- and ultimately quite superficial. The arguments extended in Lichtenstein's behalf, most especially the one that claims major status for him on the basis of his extraordinary pictorial effectiveness, don't hold water for me in the light of the shallowness and brittleness of what his art projects.

In addition, the Guggenheim's long-awaited, brilliantly researched, and very important exhibition of Kandinsky's early period ended up a disappointment. I went hoping to be proved wrong, but was only finally convinced of something I had suspected for quite some time: For all his crucial importance as 20 th-century cultural prophet, seminal influence, and teacher, Kandinsky will by no means go down in the history books as anything even closely resembling a great painter.

As for gallery shows, the biggest surprise was the Frumkin Gallery exhibition of six of Philip Pearlstein's most recent paintings. The Richard Diebenkorn show at the Knoedler was another outstanding art event, as much for what it promised as for what it delivered. I was also taken by the Philip Guston's show at David McKee; the paintings of Terence La Noue at Nancy Hoffman; Gaylen Hansen's works at Monique Knowlton; Charles Moser's and Ida Kohlmeyer's shows at David Findlay; Raphael Soyer's at Forum Gallery; Barbara Valenta's at Betty Parsons; Bonnard's at Wildenstein; Robert Quijada's at Ericson and at Exhibition Space; and Michelle Stuart's installation ''Correspondences'' at PS 1.

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