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Tanguy: a first-class illustrator of the imagination -- but no more

And another look at those 'uncomfortable' German Expressionists There's no way around it, Yves Tanguy - despite his great popularity and considerable reputation - was second-rate. During his lifetime (1900-1955), he produced a few early, mildly charming fantasy pictures, a cluster of haunting Surrealist paintings, and a number of somewhat slick and cluttered later works.

If anything, he was a first-rate illustrator of his imagination, and only occasionally a painter capable of touching the level of art.

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For those who disagree, I recommend a visit to ''Yves Tanguy: A Retrospective ,'' currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum here. It is the first museum exhibition devoted to this French artist since 1955, and includes over 125 paintings and works on paper (as well as photographs, articles, illustrated books, and letters documenting Tanguy's life and work).

The exhibition, which originated at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, does all it can for Tanguy. The works chosen represent the full range and depth of his art and clearly illustrate his evolution from naive beginner to sophisticated professional. Nothing, however, succeeds in making him appear better than he was.

I'm sorry he falls short, because I've always rather liked his work. At their best, his pictures are exquisitely painted and charmingly colored, evoke a perfect and marvelously serene and interior universe, and represent Surrealism at its lyrical best.

Of all the major Surrealists, Tanguy is the easiest to like. His art is less complex than Dali's, less disturbing than Ernst's, and more gentle than Matta's and Lam's. His creamy, subtly colored canvases of rounded, unidentifiable objects appear to be arbitrarily placed within landscapes of infinite space, and are the only Surrealist paintings people actually liked. The best of them were quite beautiful, even though that beauty was cool, distant, and somewhat antiseptic.

He did occasionally, however, evoke deeper dimensions of feeling and produced works whose profoundly ''magical'' qualities both challenge and enchant. ''Indefinite Divisibility'' and ''The Palace of Windowed Rocks,'' both from 1942 , are totally successful. And ''From One Night to Another'' (1947) is a minor masterpiece.

Unfortunately, this ''magical'' period ended rather abruptly. By 1948, his paintings were losing their warmth, and by the early '50s they had acquired an icy brittleness that was more science-fiction illustration than art.

Even so, I recommend this exhibition, for it's a fascinating account of one man's attempt to invent art purely out of imagination and sensibility. That he came terribly close to succeeding speaks well of his abilities and determination. That he finally failed to create truly significant art may tell us something important about the nature of art. Or then again, it may tell us nothing more than that Tanguy wasn't a major artist.

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At the Guggenheim Museum through Feb. 27. When art is uncomfortable

By and large, the American public doesn't feel comfortable with German Expressionism. And that discomfort apparently extends to a few of our art critics as well, for some of them seem to believe it will vanish in a puff of smoke if they ignore it.

I doubt that it will, however, for it serves as a very valuable alternative to this century's painterly preoccupation with geometric design. And it has produced a number of outstanding painters and printmakers.

A number of these artists are quite ably represented in the Galleri Bellman's exhibition here of ''German Expressionists.'' While the majority of the paintings included may be smaller and more intimate than the works usually associated with these artists, they are nevertheless representative and of generally high quality.

Most of the major Expressionists are included. Nolde, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Rohlfs, Schiele, Schlemmer, and Schmidt-Rottluff have excellent pieces. And of the others, Corinth is represented by a powerful nude; Hofer by a handsome, later still life; Pechstein by his colorful ''Lady in Blue''; and Munter by a lovely study of a ''Tiger Lily.'' I have only two complaints: there are no really early paintings by Heckel, and the Kokoschkas aren't among his best.

At the Galleri Bellman, 41 East 57th Street, through Feb. 19. Feting Miro

Also at the Guggenheim is a small but excellent exhibition celebrating Miro's 90th birthday. It includes 11 major paintings and ceramic works, and covers his career from 1923 (''The Tilled Field'') to 1967 (''Alicia''). Of particular interest are his monumental ''Painting'' of 1953 and the incredible ''Seated Woman II'' of 1939. It is by no means a major show, but it is very well worth visiting - especially in conjunction with the Tanguy retrospective. It will remain on view through Feb. 27.

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