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Complete without color

THE ability to draw is not all that rare - and neither is the ability to successfully organize shapes, lines, and tones. What is uncommon is a draftsman who can do both well.

That shouldn't be surprising, however. Drawings have only rarely been viewed as finished works of art. They are much more likely to exist as preliminary compositional studies for paintings or sculpture, as renderings of anatomical details, plants, or animals, or as landscape sketches for future reference. As such, they have generally been permitted to remain casual and informal, and are seldom as carefully composed or polished as their final versions on canvas or in stone.

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Even more important, most artists who are primarily draftsmen tend to prefer a one-to-one relationship with what they draw, and would rather capture the unique character and individuality of their subject than depict only as much of it as would successfully relate to whatever else is in the picture. Even Durer was better at dealing with single objects (a human head, a rabbit, a pair of praying hands) than with several. Wonderful as they are, his prints and paintings tend to be somewhat stiff groupings of highly individualized figures rather than the holistically conceived and orchestrated compositions of the sort produced by Titian, Rubens, or Cezanne.

There have been exceptions, of course. Leonardo, Lautrec, and Picasso were primarily draftsmen, and they produced a number of drawings and prints as exquisitely composed and finished as any painting. Once we descend from that lofty level, however, the number of draftsmen who both draw and compose beautifully shrinks significantly.

Gregory Paquette is one of the youngest and best of that rare breed. Working with charcoal, conte crayon, pencil, and an occasional wash, he fashions some of the most stunning and structurally sophisticated black-and-white images being produced today.

These range from portraits to still lifes and include evocative studies of room interiors, odd bits of furniture, portions of the city at night, and carefully delineated objects such as onions and flowers. Most are quite large for drawings, ranging up to over 40 inches in either direction, and are as sensitively and meticulously rendered as any drawing could be.

As a draftsman, Paquette is as at home with tone as with line, and never permits either to dominate. Like Sheeler and Wengenroth before him, he knows how to orchestrate subtle gradations of gray and to bring them into harmony with dramatic black-white contrasts and a subtly linear pattern or design. The result is a series of amazingly true-to-life images crisply drawn, beautifully composed , and that appear almost as handsome upside down as right side up.

Paquette is a natural black-and-white artist, meaning that everything he produces is final and completely satisfactory without color. It would be useless , for instance, to speculate how ''Still Life Winter Night,'' ''Still Life: Grape Ivy,'' or any of his self-portraits would look in color, because they were conceived and realized exclusively in terms of black, white, and gray.

But if color is absent from his work, mood definitely is not. It permeates even his most straightforward portraits and still lifes, and assumes particular importance in his pictures of darkened rooms, garrets, hallways, stairs, and the objects found in such places. Mildly brooding and persistent, and yet impossible to pin down, this mood would seem to result at least partly from the fact that, except for his portraits, Paquette's compositions are dramatically devoid of people or of any other living, moving things.

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This is not a matter of emotional coldness or inhumanity, however, but of style and form. Paquette's formal vision is serene and orderly, and aims for a kind of perfection that can only be made visible within a narrowly defined and somewhat static format and pictorial context. Since it is ''packaged'' within a mundane, everyday subject, such perfection must always remain more symbolic than actual, however; more the expression of the artist's intuitions about the scheme of things than the direct result of experience or observation.

Every resulting work of art, then, is both a success and a failure. A success because it represents a tiny sampling of the universal, and a failure because it must remain a mere hint of the grandeur and order of ultimate truth.

Paquette, of course, isn't as exclusively concerned with such matters as were Mondrian and Morandi. His work is also very involved with the precise physical appearances of people, places, and things. And yet his drawings do seem to be moving inexorably toward a level of formal clarity and order closely related to theirs. Whether or not he continues on in that direction depends on his inclinations, and on how wisely he utilizes his talents. It will also depend on how well he can resist the temptation of easy success and the despair that can so easily descend upon an artist not recognized as fully as he deserves to be.

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