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A forward-looking museum

The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., ranks among the most forward-looking and most highly respected of all smaller museums in this country. It was founded in 1964 by art collector and patron Larry Aldrich in a renovated 1783 mansion that had served originally as a grocery and hardware store during the day and a town meeting house in the evening, and was then transformed, first into a personal home, and then into a church.

In the years since its opening, the Aldrich Museum has become famous as a champion of new talent, and as a place where innovative styles and new modes of artistic expression have occasionally been given their first serious public exposure. As a result, several of its past exhibitions have become recognized as milestones of museum curatorship.

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Its two current exhibitions can only strengthen that reputation. The larger is devoted to exploring man's perception of himself through the art of recent years, and the smaller is a 25-year ''mini-retrospective'' of the art of Robert Natkin.

''Homo Sapiens: The Many Images'' is an extraordinarily broad and well-chosen in-depth study of figurative art of the past two decades (although it also includes a few older pieces from the 1940s and '50s). The selection is impressive, and so generally inclusive that anyone visiting the exhibit will receive a very good idea of what has been happening in figurative art of late.

He will see, among others, excellent examples by such relative old-timers as Avery, Bacon, De Kooning, Delvaux, Magritte, Marisol, Pearlstein, Tamayo, and Welliver, and by such bushy-tailed newcomers as Baselitz, Chia, Clemente, Fetting, Pench, Salle, and Schnabel. There is also an excellent Andy Warhol ''Portrait of Man Ray,'' and a heartbreakingly frank ''Self Portrait'' by Alice Neel.

The Robert Natkin exhibition is smaller, but was also remarkably well-chosen. It includes examples of his major periods and styles, as well as several smaller drawings and paintings. It's a jewel of a show, in which every piece included serves to round out an affectionately true museum-portrait of one of this country's best lyrical painters.

Both shows will run through Sept. 5. The museum is open to the public Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 2 to 4 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. The address is 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn. 06877.

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