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For 40 years, Motherwell has steered his own course

If the barriers of time and language could somehow be dissolved, I'd very much enjoy sitting in on a conversation between Sesshu, the great Japanese painter of the 15th century, and Robert Motherwell, America's own master of the calligraphic approach to art. For all their cultural and thematic differences, these two champions of the brush would, I suspect, get along famously - especially if both could demonstrate their ideas with brush and ink as they talked.

Motherwell, of course, would have to explain the premises of abstraction, but since he's a highly articulate man and many of his own images incorporate Eastern formal principles and procedures, I doubt he'd have much of a problem.

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If he did, I'd suggest that the two of them take a leisurely walk through Motherwell's 40-year retrospective currently at the Guggenheim Museum here, and let the works themselves make their point without any further verbal explanations.

No artist could ask for a better advocate than the roughly 150 paintings, collages, drawings, and prints hanging on the museum walls. Included are important examples of each of the major themes the artist pursued throughout his career, as well as numerous sketches and studies. Together, they give as clear and complete a picture of Motherwell's work as anyone could wish.

The exhibition was organized by and for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Its current manifestation at the Guggenheim, however, is considerably larger than the one shown originally in Buffalo, N.Y., and which traveled throughout the United States during the past year. Not only did Motherwell and Diane Waldman, deputy director of the Guggenheim, choose 60 additional works to round out the original selection, they picked them from the artist's personal collection and included many that have never been exhibited before.

Motherwell's impact upon American art has been significant, if not sustained, due largely to the fact that he has remained true to his original approach to art and has not followed the wild and often erratic course painting in the United States has taken since the early 1950s. His work is deeply rooted in respect for the masterworks of the School of Paris, a lifelong devotion to philosophy, art history, and European literature, and an early interest in the Surrealist theory of psychic automatism. His career, in fact, began in 1941 with a number of automatic drawings. These led rather quickly to the profoundly innovative paintings and collages of 1943-47, which established him as one of the founding members of the New York School.

His evolution since then, while consistent and steady, has not been limited to one specific style or to one set of images, but has been sufficiently broad to permit him to create new motifs and pictorial modes while occasionally reworking earlier ones. Thus, while his primary approach has been calligraphic and bluntly black and white, he has also produced a number of elegant, subtly colored collages, several huge canvases consisting of one or two colors and as many short, straight lines, and various images combining wide open spaces with exquisitely placed splashes and geometrically defined areas of color and what appear to be random linear doodlings.

To describe Motherwell's work in terms of splashes of color and random doodlings is to demean it, and yet that is precisely the way many of his critics do perceive it. What they fail to understand is the level of creative sophistication that lies behind these stark and apparently simplistic images. As he himself has said, ''I usually begin with a 'doodle,' or with a liquid puddle like a Rorschach image . . . or with a line and a dot, or a piece of paper dropped at random on what will be a collage. Then the struggle begins and endures throughout in a state of anxiety that is ineffable, but obliquely recorded in the inner tensions of the finished canvas.''

That Motherwell has generally emerged the victor in this ''struggle'' is demonstrated time and again in this extremely handsome and important exhibition of his work - as indeed is the fact that he must be counted among the truest and most significant American painters of the past half century.

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At the Guggenheim Museum through Feb. 3.

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