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Jewish images of the '70s in American art: lively and sophisticated

It is usually worth the effort for people in New York to walk the extra few blocks up Fifth Avenue to visit the Jewish Museum. Although relatively small, this museum always has at least two or three interesting and worthwhile shows going on at any one time. Some of these are devoted to Jewish history and culture, others to religious records and artifacts, and still others to art produced over the centuries depicting Jewish life.

The major emphasis, however -- at least for the general art-loving public -- is upon contemporary art in all its manifestations. These shows present the work of both established artists and newcomers, introduce the art of foreign countries, illuminate certain aspects of the avant-garde, or pinpoint qualities or trends in contemporary art that reflect Jewish culture.

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The current such exhibition on view at this museum (through Sept. 12) is ''Jewish Themes: Contemporary American Artists.'' It is the first in-depth look at the use of Jewish imagery in American art during the 1970s, and consists of 41 works by 18 living artists. Each of the artists represented is the product of a Jewish background, and each one is either already well known or is well on the road to being so.

All of them managed to transpose elements of their personal or cultural identities into art, and in a variety of styles which almost matches the number of artists shown. This is an extremely lively and sophisticated show, with art that ranges from the straightforwardly realistic to the most celebratory and abstract -- with examples of multimedia and video art rounding out the picture. If not every work on view reaches the plateau of artistic excellence, every work does at least serve as an excellent example of the style it represents.

The two outstanding works by far are Robert Natkin's large and beautifully mysterious ''Jacob Wrestling With the Angel'' and Jerome Witkin's powerful triptych ''Death as an Usher: Germany, 1933.'' The Natkin is one of that artist's best paintings to date, and projects such a profoundly satisfying, dreamlike, and enigmatic aura that one immediately ceases to concern himself with how its title could possibly have any connection with such a subtle and exquisite ''abstract'' image.

As for the Witkin, it's as superb a piece of narrative painting as I've seen in years. Based on an eyewitness account of Nazi brutality, and developed sequentially from left to right across the triptych's three separate canvases, it evokes the horror of nightmarish reality in a manner that is both monumental in conception and shockingly precise in detail. Witkin is obviously an artist about whom we shall hear a great deal more.

I was also taken by Maxi Cohen's video installation ''My Bubi, My Zada.'' This carefully constructed environment re-creates an old-fashioned family living room and documents the artist's close and loving relationship with her grandmother - who appears in animated conversation on a television set at the center of this work.

Also outstanding are R. B. Kitaj's paintings and drawings, Susan Schwalb's ''shrines,'' Mindy Weisel's oils, Milo Reice's rather iconoclastic biblical re-creations, and Edith Altman's drawings.

At the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, through Sept. 12.

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