One of the unpleasant truths any young artist must face is that neither talent nor quality work will ensure success. And that not even a lifetime's devotion to his craft and the production of beautiful and significant art will guarantee anything except an occasional word of encouragement from a friend and a certain degree of self-satisfaction.
It's a truth many slightly older and more experienced artists have learned to accept, and that has caused many others to consider career alternatives. In neither case have these artists been willing to achieve success at any cost, something others have been willing to do - often with startling results.
Among the numerous talented and accomplished artists who have not achieved fame are several who nevertheless have done quite well. They exhibit regularly in good galleries, are respected by a growing number of art professionals and a significant number of their peers, make a modest income from their art, and in general are accepted as solid professionals who can be counted on to do good work.
The majority are just that: solid and dependable. A few, however, are special , and are in fact as worthy of major success as many who have achieved it.
Anyone seriously involved with the art world has his or her own list of such artists, as well as a number of theories as to why they haven't received the recognition they deserve. These will range from the stupidity of critics and curators to poor management by dealers. But whatever the reason, these artists represent levels of quality that have won the respect of at least a few art professionals willing to champion them and what they produce.
My own list of 20 or so underrated artists in their 40s or younger includes four whose work particularly interests me, and for whom I have a special regard. None is a newcomer; all have been exhibiting for several years and are thoroughly accomplished and professional.
Tino Zago heads my abbreviated list by virtue of his extraordinary growth as a painter since I first encountered his work a little over four years ago. My impression at that time was that he was a ''diamond in the rough'' with tremendous talent and a great passion for paint, a person who would, in 10 years' time, develop into an excellent artist.
He proved me wrong - but only to the extent of accomplishing in 10 months what I had thought could only be done in a decade. His second show followed his first by less than a year, and totally convinced me he was fast becoming one of our very best painters.
This time I was right - as he proved emphatically in his 1983 exhibition and in the two he held this year at the OK Harris Gallery in SoHo. His most recent show closed only a few days ago, and although it didn't get anything like the attention it deserved, it was one of the most beautiful demonstrations of painting I have seen in quite some time.
Zago's canvases are very large, passionately and sumptuously painted, celebratory in spirit. The compositions are holistic in intent. They can be read as loosely defined depictions of streams and ponds and of the vegetation that lines their banks; as rich, painterly explosions somewhat in the tradition of the late Monet or Jackson Pollock; or as attempts to maintain an exquisite pictorial balance between the ''representational'' and the ''abstract.''
But no matter how they are viewed, they exist as splendid paintings that must enhance Zago's reputation as the years go by.
Athena Tacha is another remarkable artist. She was born and raised in Greece, received a PhD in aesthetics from the University of Paris, became an art historian with several books and articles to her name, and ''retired'' from art history in 1973 to work and teach full-time as a sculptor.
Although I had seen examples of her work before, my first real involvement with her art came during her 1981 one-woman show here. It consisted of several drawings and models for proposed environmental sculpture, in which spectators would become participants by moving onto and along a structure's complex and multitiered forms. I was moved and intrigued by these works' seamless fusion of formal and human realities and by the artist's ability to be totally of the 1980 s while also maintaining a powerful sense of continuity with the art and culture of the past.
Tacha is deeply involved with mankind's search for solutions to its social and political problems. Her recent exhibition at the Max Hutchinson Gallery here was entitled ''Massacre Memorials and Other Public Projects.'' It consisted primarily of studies and models for public sculpture memorializing those who died in such places as Hiroshima and Vietnam. In them she combined three-dimensional forms with sandblasted photographic images and documentary inscriptions to create works that are both timeless and painfully immediate.
Alan Magee is one of the very few American artists under age 40 whose work I respect as much as I like. His large paintings of pebbles are both incredibly true to life and extraordinarily effective as purely formal images. At his best he has the touch of a 15th-century Flemish master, the structural sensibility of a 20th-century Cubist, and the knack of so subtly combining the two that all one sees at first is a breathtakingly realistic picture of small stones.
His paintings, as a result, remain fresh and visually exciting no matter how often they are viewed. I have studied them at length every time they've been shown at the Staempfli Gallery here, and I'm as certain of their high quality as I am that at this moment the sky is blue.
Terence La Noue is another artist who should be better known - even though, like Athena Tacha, he has already carved out a special niche for himself among a number of art professionals and collectors.
His very large, richly textured, and sumptuously painted pictures are among the best ''abstract'' works being produced today. They are so partly because of his special talents, but also because he has never forgotten that creating art is a cultural as well as a private act. His paintings may appear spontaneous and unplanned, but they are an integral part of the tradition that helped shape the art of Bonnard and Matisse and gave impetus and direction to the revolutionary work of Pollock, Still, and Kline.