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An exceptional gallery - and realism vs. abstraction

Some galleries are as exceptional as the art they show, and deserve as much recognition as the artists they represent. True enough, there aren't many of them. The number of galleries that can give an experienced gallery-goer a thrill of anticipation as he or she is about to enter their premises is very small. And the number that can sustain that anticipatory thrill even after two or three disappointing shows is smaller still.

I'll never forget the excitement, for instance, of entering the Sidney Janis and Betty Parsons galleries in the 1950s and early '60s. Nor how stimulating it was to see what the Leo Castelli Gallery was up to after that. And there are six or seven galleries today whose shows I wouldn't miss for all the tea in China.

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Moving slowly to the top of that list is the Sperone-Westwater Gallery here. Although some of its exhibitions have failed to interest me, and two or three have irritated me immensely, the rest have been so exceptional that not even a succession of weak shows in that gallery would deter me from trying to see everything it puts on.

The reason is simple. Every show the Sperone-Westwater mounts is at least provocative if not excellent. I've been moved, impressed, challenged, and angered by the exhibitions I've seen there, but I've never been bored, and I've never felt that my time's been wasted. At most I've been thrilled, and at least I've been provoked into probing creative and critical positions somewhat at odds with my own.

Now, that's quite something - a gallery that not only provides the viewer with first-rate exhibitions of contemporary art, but also occasionally goads him into reconsidering his notions about art. I find such a one-two punch stimulating and valuable. It may not cause me to change my views to any significant degree, but it certainly forces me to define my own position a bit more clearly.

Although best known for its advocacy of the newer Italian art that has created such a stir of late, the Sperone-Westwater Gallery also handles work from other sources. Outstanding among the latter was the recent exhibition of very large paintings by the young British artist Christopher LeBrun. These extraordinary canvases, in which precise and generalized images of horses moved in and out of highly romanticized and generalized environments, were New York's first full view of this very promising painter.

I was also impressed by this gallery's even more recent presentation of the paintings and sculptures of Mimmo Paladino - most especially those works that incorporated both painterly and sculptural forms and techniques.

It is difficult to describe either their appearance or the effect these pieces have on the viewer. They are very large, richly colored, determinedly allegorical, and delightfully eclectic. They draw upon both ancient mythological and very recent formal sources for their imagery and style, and yet they remain remarkably individual and personal in the process. Even if one remains somewhat uncertain as to precisely what is depicted in these provocative works, one cannot complain about their pictorial effectiveness. That is so exceptional that one keeps going back to them for further hints and clues.

''Untitled, 1983'' is a good example. I'm not at all certain I know what's going on in this work, which combines painting with sculptural objects and which is topped by a faunlike creature, but I'm delighted and intrigued by it nevertheless.

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The Sperone-Westwater Gallery is located at 142 Greene Street in SoHo. Its next exhibition will be a group show of gallery artists. I haven't seen it yet - but I fully intend to. Realism and abstraction

Realism and abstraction have been doing battle in art for roughly three-quarters of a century. Although realism is currently staging a comeback, the overall favorite so far has been abstraction. In fact, one could say that the score at present is seven to four in favor of the latter.

''Realism and Abstraction: Counterpoints in American Drawing, 1900-1940,'' currently at Hirschl & Adler Galleries here, beautifully documents this conflict in 129 drawings by 66 artists. Included are works by many of America's major 20 th-century American artists, a few of whom are represented by particularly outstanding pieces in black and white or in color.

Realism wins out in this exhibition. But then, that's not surprising, considering that its cutoff date is 1940, well before Abstract Expressionism gave realism what was intended to be its knockout punch. Even so, abstraction does quite well for itself, with excellent works by Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, George L. K. Morris, and Louis Lozowick.

Some of the strongest pieces on view exist in the no-man's land between the two extremes, and represent an intelligent and sensitive fusion of what is best of both. Thus Prendergast's ''Piazza,'' Demuth's ''Bermuda: Trees and Houses,'' Davis's ''Rue Descartes,'' and Schamberg's ''Composition'' could easily fit into either category - or into both.

The show is stolen, however, by Grant Wood's witty and outrageous ''Adolescence,'' a watercolor drawing depicting a half-grown chicken between two adult ones. This is Wood at his best, and it stands as proof that he was an excellent satirist.

This first-rate exhibition is a must for anyone wishing to see first-rate American drawing from the 1900-1940 period. It will remain open to the public at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 21 East 70th Street, through Dec. 30. Auction records

The insane race in certain sections of the art world to be the first to realize $10 million for one painting at auction continues unabated. Manet has now joined the ranks of likely candidates for this form of stardom. Three of his canvases sold for over $1 million each at a recent sale at Christie's.

Manet, in fact, is beginning to look like a major contender. His ''Promenade, '' a full-length portrait of a woman, sold for $3.96 million - more than twice the amount previously paid for a Manet at auction. And two still lifes by him went for $1.2 million and $1.1 million.

Other exceptional sales were Cezanne's ''Sugar Bowl, Pears and Rug,'' which also went for $3.96 million, and Giacometti's sculpture ''Chariot,'' for $1.37 million.

It was, in all, a highly successful evening. The total yield was $27,699,100.

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