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Another look at the art of yesterday's reputation

Nothing evaporates faster in this country than yesterday's reputation in art. Who today, for instance, remembers the names of Alexander Brook, Henry Varnum Poor, Franklin C. Watkins, Ernest Fiene, Walt Kuhn, Morris Kantor, Stow Wengenroth, Eugene Berman, etc., except for a few determined collectors and art professionals? Yet each of them was an important figure in the American art world three or four decades ago.

Even such an extraordinary artist as Morris Graves is unknown to large segments of our art population, even though his haunting paintings and drawings caught the fancy of everyone from the leading Abstract Expressionists to the man in the street during the 1940s and 1950s. (Fortunately, this ignorance will be shattered once and for all by the huge Graves retrospective scheduled to tour the country in 1983 and '84.)

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How many of today's art lovers, busily searching for the latest in style or imagery, have heard of Jack Levine, the late Kenzo Okado, Jacob Lawrence, Hyman Bloom, Ivan Albright, or David Park - even though all are contemporary and some are painting as well as ever.

Among the fairly recent reputations in American art that have come very close to being entirely extinguished is that of Peppino Mangravite. The name of this highly romantic and lyrical figurative painter is almost unknown today, although it was a distinguished one in the American art scene from the late 1920s to the very late '40s.

This oblivion will not, of course, seem strange to those for whom American art was born with the Abstract Expressionists in the mid-1940s, and for whom the many American Scene and Regionalist painters of the preceding decades hardly qualify as true artists. But it does seem strange to me, and what's more, it seems wasteful as well.

That Mangravite deserves a better fate than to be forgotten was made dramatically clear at the small but excellent retrospective of his work currently on view at the Burchfield Center here. Although not a major art event in the sense the term is used today, it is nevertheless an important art event, for it reintroduces a very good - even at times an excellent - painter to the American public, and underscores how terribly wasteful we tend to be with our cultural resources.

Yes, wasteful. In a mad scramble for the newest and the latest, we merrily toss aside a great deal of what is good for something that is seldom better. And we will then, in turn, toss that aside for something even newer.

By no stretch of the imagination can Peppino Mangravite be called a great artist. But by those same standards he must be acknowledged as a true one, who created a handful of the most poetic painterly images done in this country during the 1930s and early '40s.

Mangravite entered the American art scene in the early 1920s as a modernist determined to make his mark in the then-fashionable formalist tradition sparked by Cezanne, updated into 20th-century terms by the Cubists, and Americanized by the likes of Sheeler, Weber, Hartley, and Bluemner.

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Although it was not entirely suited to his romantic temperament, he mastered this disciplined and largely geometric approach to painting so well that a few of his works of that period equal anything his American modernist contemporaries were doing. Some, as a matter of fact, are so good that had he continued in this vein he would almost certainly have achieved much greater fame than he did.

But he was not satisfied. There were other, more personal things he wanted to say and do through his art. By the very early 1930s he was convinced he had to strike off on his own, and by 1935 he was well on his way toward creating the kind of art for which he was to become well known.

This generally consisted of paintings of poets singing in mountain settings; young lovers in beautiful landscapes; picnics and dances in the woods; warm family get-togethers; children and animals at play, etc. - and all painted in a warm, lyrically linear style that was mostly the result of talent and observation, but which benefited also from a love of the paintings of Renoir, El Greco, and Watteau. The El Greco influence was particularly strong (although well integrated), as can be seen in one of his loveliest paintings, ''The Growing Daughter'' of 1938.

By the beginning of the 1940s, his reputation was at its highest. Almost every major American museum owned at least one of his paintings; he was well known as a muralist, printmaker, and teacher of art; and his pictures could be seen in most regional and national exhibitions, as well as in numerous one-man shows in New York and throughout the United States.

Unfortunately, as was true of so many painters of his generation, after World War II the advent of Abstract Expressionism marked the dimming and then the eclipse of that reputation. But this didn't stop him, for he continued to paint until his death in 1978.

All this and a great deal more are spelled out in considerable detail in the Burchfield Center's sensitively chosen exhibition of Mangravite's work. It includes excellent examples from his early days, some of the very best of the paintings he did during his heyday, and a good selection of his later, more coloristic and semi-abstract works.

In addition, there are a few drawings and lithographs, as well as a study for a mural. But, most poignantly, it also includes a very small study discovered tacked to a drawing board shortly after his passing. It was possibly the very last thing he ever worked on, but it was also among his very best.

At the Burchfield Center, Buffalo, N.Y., through Sept. 26.

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