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Early works of famous artists can surprise you

It's always a pleasure to see the little-known early work of established or famous artists - especially if it proves they were even more talented than one had thought.

I'll never forget, for instance, how surprised I was to discover that Lautrec's genius for depicting character and movement was already very much in evidence when he was 16. Or how amazed I was to discover Mondrian's extraordinary early watercolors of flowers, Klee's bitingly technical youthful etchings, and de Kooning's elegantly classical pre-Abstract Expressionist figure studies. Once I was aware of them, however, I never forgot them, and thought all the more highly of the artists who had produced them.

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The Allan Frumkin Gallery here has made a special point of occasionally exhibiting in tandem its artists' early and recent works. Most noteworthy was its 1980 summer exhibition, which presented both current work and work of the early 1960s by such artists as Arneson, Beal, Leslie, Pearlstein, and Wiley. The show was both handsome and informative, and a gentle reminder that an artist's mature work is often predicated on serious decisions relating to style, and on shifts away from youthful enthusiasms.

The Frumkin Gallery's current exhibition continues in this tradition. Not this time by contrasting early and recent works, but by giving over its space to paintings produced between 1960 and 1964 by Red Grooms and Peter Saul.

Red Grooms, in particular, needs no introduction to anyone interested in contemporary American art. His brightly colored, zany, and wildly Rabelaisian sculptures have caught the attention, if not the fancy, of almost everyone. His 1981 Marlborough Gallery exhibition was packed to the rafters with viewers responding to his exuberant celebrations of human foibles. And his huge environmental pieces, ''The City of Chicago'' and ''Ruckus Manhattan,'' have intrigued and enchanted many thousands more.

Even so, I've never fallen completely under his spell. For all his zest for life and frank enjoyment of his fellowman, his sculptures tend to be a bit too blatant in subject and execution for my tastes.

That is definitely not the case, however, with his paintings of the early '60 s on view at the Frumkin Gallery. Without exception, I found them truly extraordinary, with the kind of authority and verve encountered only in the paintings of the exceptionally gifted.

Grooms was in his early 20s when he painted these wonderfully impulsive and life-filled works. In them, creative intuition inevitably (and apparently joyfully) zeroed in on precisely the appropriate color, shape, line, or detail. The result was a fusion of impulse and means that is the sign of the true painter, and that absolutely cannot be taught. An artist has it or he doesn't - and Grooms obviously had it.

It shows most emphatically in his ability to fashion extremely complex compositions out of hundreds of chunky, swirling, color-drenched daubs of paint. His knack for creating form, character, color, and pattern with brusquely applied paint is truly remarkable. His large ''One Way,'' for instance, consists of dozens of people, vehicles, buildings, etc., nightmarishly jammed together in a way that recalls Ensor's ''The Entry of Christ Into Brussels.'' And yet it is all as tightly orchestrated as the work of any post-Cubist formalist.

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He is equally good at smaller, more informal pieces, and at such complex interior compositions as ''Via Guelfa Studio.'' Densely packed as the latter may be, it comes alive through Grooms's handling of color and his knack for organizing small clusters of precisely characterized individuals into strongly defined compositional patterns.

It's an excellent show, made all the more enjoyable by the artist's statement that he has returned to painting with a vengeance. I'm glad to hear it. Good painters are hard to find.

The Red Grooms-Peter Saul exhibition will continue at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, 50 West 57th Street, through March 25. Although neither as rich nor as dramatic as Grooms's paintings, Saul's colorfully exuberant canvases are also well worth a visit to this gallery - especially his ''Business Man No. 1.'' The painterly figure

Idiosyncratic and passionate painterliness is the thread binding the work of 10 artists on view at the Monique Knowlton Gallery here. The Painterly Figure: Veteran Expressionist Figure Painters is a small group show, curated by Carter Ratcliff, that attempts (in his words) ''to suggest how crucial Expressionism has been to American art in the postwar period, and how necessary it has been for painters to find a way beyond its snares, its false promises of absolute directness.''

To present his case, Ratcliff chose one painting apiece by Robert Beauchamp, Nicolas Carone, Peter Dean, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Red Grooms, June Leaf, George McNeil, and Alice Neel. To these, the gallery added a huge and spectacular canvas by James Herbert.

The effect is enthusiastic, colorful - and a bit garish, with Dean, Leaf, and McNeil providing most of the garishness. These three may be ''veterans'' in Ratcliff's terms, but for my money they're stuck in a painterly limbo.

Considering how crucial Willem de Kooning was to the emergence and effectiveness of Abstract Expressionism, it should come as no surprise that his slim, vertical painting is the outstanding work on view.

Of the other paintings, I found Neel's and Beauchamp's canvases dull by their own standards, Carone's only mildly interesting, and Grooms's disappointing (especially in the light of what I've written about him above). One can only hope that his piece in this show is not representative of his current work.

Mr. Ratcliff's good intentions notwithstanding, this show, I'm afraid, falls flat on its face. It proves or disproves nothing. I would suggest he do it over, this time in larger quarters, and with a more careful selection. He owes that much to everyone concerned - himself included.

At the Monique Knowlton Gallery, 19 East 71 Street, through March 26.

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