I wonder sometimes where all the good painters have gone. I mean those artists who let paint itself carry the main expressive burden, who can both control it and let it roar - and who don't see it merely as something used to cover large areas with flat color.
I had thought, when the recent neo-Expressionist craze descended upon us, that lively painting was largely what it was all about, that regardless of what else it might lack, the movement would at least bring some fire and lightning back to art.
Well it has - to a degree. Passion has indeed returned to painting. The West Germans, the Italians, the French, and the British have given back to paint much of its identity. And there are certainly enough younger Americans who have established glittering reputations with huge canvases piled high with thick, multicolored pigment.
But if passion has returned, painterly sensibility, by and large, has not. For all the acres of canvas filled with maximum-strength color and mounds of heavily encrusted paint hanging on our gallery walls today, there is relatively little art of outstanding quality. Not since the days of the Abstract Expressionists and the Color-Field painters has so much paint been slung and splashed about. But this time, unfortunately, it's with relatively little genuine artistic effect.
I find it all quite disturbing - until I remember that I do come across exceptions. I was very pleased, for instance, to discover the work of young John McNamara just a few days ago in his first New York show. His canvases were big, bold, and truly painterly. And two huge canvases by James Adley in his exhibition at the 22 Wooster Street Gallery were real knockouts, with a sensibility seldom seen hereabouts. Recent work by Terence LaNoue confirms his continuing growth as a painter, as do the paintings of Tino Zago, Robert Zakanitch, Sam Gilliam, Kes Zapkus, Joyce Treiman, and Jean Michel Basquiat.
Among the better-established artists, Robert Natkin's recent show included a handful of paintings that can only be described as beautiful. Enrico Donati exhibited a few canvases in his recent show which dramatically cap his long career. And Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn came across as superbly as usual in their exhibitions a few months ago.
This by no means exhausts my list of good contemporary painters. But it's long enough to remind me that I'm mistaken, should I ever seriously begin to think that painting today is dead or dying. Studio Museum in Harlem
The Studio Museum in Harlem has a new home. Although only a few minutes' walking time from its previous location, it is light-years beyond it in attractiveness, accessibility, and the appropriateness of its facilities.
It is now housed - thanks to the donation of a five-story commercial building by a local bank - in spacious, attractively renovated quarters at 144 West 125th Street. The three stories it occupies (it rents out the other two) contain several handsome galleries, a gift shop, office space, storage for its permanent collection, and a photographic research and study center, as well as workshops and artists' studios.
Its new home fits the museum well, for it reflects the open and dynamic spirit projected both by the museum staff and by the art on its walls. And its location, toward the middle of Harlem's busiest thoroughfare, in the hub of the community's rebirth and development, is ideal.
As museums go, the Studio Museum is very young. It was conceived in the mid- 1960s by the Junior Council of the Museum of Modern Art as a working space for artists - but outgrew that exclusive function almost immediately. Too much else was demanded of it, most particularly that it serve as the art center for the Harlem community by providing both art-education and museum services.
The first major step was its Artists in Residence Program, begun in 1969. It annually provides three emerging artists with studio space and a modest stipend for nine months to a year. All they need do in return is work at their art, discuss it with visiting museum groups, and conduct an occasional workshop. At the end of the year, the museum mounts a large-scale exhibition of their work, to which the entire art community in invited.
Other projects followed over the years. The Film Festival, which gives young black filmmakers the opportunity to screen their works, was begun in 1973. In 1974, the museum's Co-Operative School program began placing artists in local Harlem schools to instruct students in the fundamentals of art. And in the same year, its Special Events program was created to supplement the museum's exhibition schedule and to develop its audience.
It also currently offers an intensive six-month internship program, which provides on-the-job training for those who have demonstrated a special interest in museum careers.
To the art world at large, however, the Studio Museum is best known for its exhibitions of the work of black artists. These take the form of general exhibitions, as well as individual shows in its continuing Black Masters Series and its just-begun Artists in Mid-Career Series. Mid-career series
The first exhibition in the museum's Artists in Mid-Career Series is devoted to the recent art of Sam Gilliam. It includes examples from his ''Red and Black'' series (large, irregular-shaped canvases designed to be grouped together to form varying configurations depending on the space in which they are hung), and his ''D'' series (smaller works, each with a small D-shaped form appended to it).
Of the two series, I much preferred the ''Red and Black.'' Its individual canvases were so successfully combined to form larger and more complex units taking full advantage of the museum's space that they appear specifically created for this show. ''The Arc Maker,'' in particular, is a smashing success, both coloristically and as shape. Few artists today could have created an image so physically sumptuous and so exquisitely designed. The eye not only savors its rich color and texture, it also finds itself traveling along and participating in the formation of extremely elegant and subtle linear and spatial geometric configurations.
Also on view is an excellent photographic exhibition by Anthony Barboza, and ''An Ocean Apart: American Artists Abroad.'' The latter consists of the work of four black artists who have won greater acclaim in Europe than in the United States, and includes some excellent pieces by Sam Middleton and Walter T. Williams. A special selection of the photographs of James VanDerZee can also be seen in the museum's lower floor.
The Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, is open every day except Mondays and Tuesdays. The Sam Gilliam exhibition will run through Feb. 27, and ''An Ocean Apart'' will close Jan. 9. Thayer exhibition
Abbott Thayer (1849-1921) was an excellent painter, and the large exhibition of his work organized by the Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y., and currently on view at the National Academy of Design here, proves it.
This is the first comprehensive showing of his work since the memorial exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum in 1922. Its more than 100 paintings document all phases of his career, including examples of his portraits, idealized women and children (often portrayed as angels), landscapes, and studies demonstrating his theories of natural camouflage. Also of interest are a few works by his son Gerald, most particularly his unbelievably realistic ''Male Ruffed Grouse in the Forest.''
I recommend this exhibition highly. After its closing at the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, on Jan. 23, it will travel to the Currier Gallery in Manchester, N.H., then to the Norton Gallery in West Palm Beach, Fla.