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Elegant and elemental Kelly show

What is probably the most elegant - as well as the most elemental - exhibition on view in New York has just opened at the Whitney Museum. It is the first major retrospective of sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly, and includes 46 pieces dating from his earliest wood reliefs, done in 1949, to monumental metal works completed in 1982. Also included are numerous works on paper, many of them studies for sculpture.

It is a beautiful show. Not, perhaps, an easy one to appreciate for those who want art to embody rich allusions and complex metaphors, or to be elaborately decorated. But certainly an easy one for those willing to perceive art as a process of distillation toward primary shape.

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Kelly's sculptures are as simple as anything could be. They are also large and very heavy, and stand or hang with tremendous presence in the Whitney's spacious fourth-floor galleries. Some are colored, others are raw metal, and a few are plain wood, but all are starkly and simply elegant, and wonderfully ''final.''

I recommend this exhibition highly. After its closing at the Whitney on Feb. 27, it will travel to the St. Louis Art Museum where it will be on view March 25 through May 29. 'Art Worlds'

I'd like to recommend an unusual and excellent book by sociologist Howard S. Becker: Art Worlds (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, $29.95). It has very few reproductions of paintings and sculptures, but a great deal of information about the forces that lie within the phenomenon known as the art world.

It is not, however, the art world we generally think of, for in this book it is expanded to include an interlocking network of everything from quiltmaking to jazz, and from the simplest form of popular art to the most advanced and esoteric forms of the avant garde.

To clarify his thesis, Becker discusses everything from aesthetics, criticism , censorship, artistic mavericks, professionalism - to authenticity, conformity, commercial distribution, and changes in art. Anything and everything, in other words, that can help illuminate his belief that works of art are produced by cooperation and require a highly complex and multifaceted network of cooperating individuals and activities to see the light of day.

It's a fascinating book - and a thought-provoking one.

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