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Original voices in art. Outstanding exhibitions by two artists, one established, one new

I doubt anyone has painted more beautiful pictures this year than those Richard Diebenkorn is showing in his exhibition at M. Knoedler & Co. here. They represent a continuation of his Ocean Park series (a group of large geometric abstract paintings begun almost 20 years ago) and indicate once again that he probably is the finest American painter of his generation. I would go even one step further and suggest he is close to becoming a modernist old master on a plane with Morandi, Rothko, and Giacometti. Not only because his paintings have the character and authority of major work, but because they represent the culmination and vindication of ideas first formulated by the Cubists, Matisse, Mir'o, the Abstract Expressionists, and Diebenkorn himself a good 35 years ago.

His current show, in fact, is something of a victory celebration, for it proves that quality and significance in art are as much a matter of evolution as of revolution, and that the most lasting voices aren't necessarily the loudest ones.

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And last he will, of that I'm certain. No other living artist is so deeply admired by so broad a spectrum of committed art lovers, and no other artist has so consistent a record of selling out his shows before they open -- and at extremely high prices.

Jasper Johns and Frank Stella may have bigger and more dramatic reputations, but they cannot outdraw him in matters of affection and deep-seated respect. People and institutions buy his work for reasons that transcend those of fashion or investment. No museum claiming to have a representative collection of important post-1950 American art can afford not to own one of his paintings. And more than one major collector, while showing off his prize possessions, has been known to point to and to speak w ith genuine warmth and pride of ``my'' Diebenkorn.

On the other hand, one doesn't read much about him in the trendy art journals. And for good reason, for he commits the unforgivable crime of not putting the ``new'' and the different at the top of his list of priorities.

The 12 paintings and nine works on paper in this exhibition, for instance, break no new ground and advance no new ideas. They merely exist as stunning and important paintings representing a remarkable artist's continuing attempts to give voice and form to some of his deepest intuitions and feelings. That he is a profoundly knowledgeable painter is taken for granted. What matters is what he is trying to fashion and to communicate. Everything that might impede those efforts or draw attention to itself is eliminated -- no matter how fascinating or challenging it might be.

He accomplishes this in a purely abstract style, with a few severely trimmed geometric forms, narrow bands or flat areas of color, precise linear divisions, and a few surface markings. Nothing impressive, certainly, in itself. And yet, thanks to his lifelong probings into modernist theory and style and his innate and extraordinary talent and sensibility, it's enough to produce paintings as exhilarating, significant, and genuinely beautiful as any made during the past two or three decades.

At M. Knoedler & Co., 19 East 70th Street, through Dec. 5. Melissa Miller

While it may no longer be news that Melissa Miller is one of the most promising younger artists around, the full depth and range of her talent remains something of a mystery to most.

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In short, not many people know how good she really is.

They are aware, of course, that she paints animals and birds in their native habitat, and in a style that is both startlingly true-to-life and delightfully idiosyncratic. And they are conscious of the fact that many of her creatures do strange things, that they perform ritual dances, gaze awestruck at the northern lights, and leap about in wild abandon.

They have not, however -- unless they live in or near her home state of Texas -- seen many of her actual paintings, even though she has exhibited in major group shows and had a small one-person exhibition last year in New York. Important as these shows were, they hardly sufficed to give the public more than an inkling of her capabilities.

Her current exhibition at the Holly Solomon Gallery here, while also rather small, has the advantage of showing Miller at her best, and of indicating both the richness of her talent and the rapidity with which she has grown as an artist over the past 18 months.

Her greatest advance has been in a more compact sense of design, richer and less strident color, and an even more provocative imagery -- qualities best demonstrated in a group of smallish works on paper depicting various animals and birds cavorting about in the furs and skins of other creatures. Just what is going on in these oddly haunting pictures remains a mystery, although we are informed that they were inspired by the dances of the American Indians of the Southwest as well as by Chinese scroll pain tings. But no matter. They are wonderfully imaginative, sumptuously painted, and totally successful.

Not everyone can fashion art out of something as incongruous as a jack rabbit promenading in the fur of a fox or an owl swooping along under a sheepskin. But Melissa Miller can, and for that she deserves a great deal of credit.

At the Holly Solomon Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, through Nov. 30.

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