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Young talent on the trail of greatness. John McNamara succeeding with gargantuan canvases

It's always a pleasure to watch young talent emerge, test itself, find its direction -- and take off. Not that it happens all that often, not that what results is necessarily of profound importance. Greatness in art, after all, is a very rare commodity, and most of what we see, buy, and enjoy -- or even honor in museums -- can only be described, at best, as good honest work. At any one time, however, there are two or three dozen younger painters and sculptors who are deep into the process of shaping their art, and who have the necessary balance of talent, imagination, ambition, discipline, and inner creative resources, to appear capable, eventually, of producing significant art. Unfortunately, most will not succeed, and every one may fall by the wayside, but all, for the duration of their struggle to achieve mastery, will exhibit challenging, even fascinating evidence of the depth, range, and inventiveness of their talent and the seriousness of their ambition.

John McNamara, a young painter from Boston, is currently holding such a demonstration here. His exhibition, his third at the Bess Cutler Gallery in SoHo, consists of five huge and two medium-sized abstract canvases in black, white, and silver, one even larger painting in color, and four black-and-white drawings on paper. All are powerful in effect, considerably simpler than his previous works, and sufficiently successful to convince this critic, at least, that he has moved one giant step closer to major status as an artist.

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What he has already achieved is quite remarkable. The drawings, in particular, are first-rate and belong in a museum. They have the kind of authority that comes only from genuine mastery of the creative process and the sort of crisp, black-and-white impact that is totally convincing and that makes the very idea of color unthinkable.

It is in his gargantuan canvases, however, that McNamara's real future lies. Not for their size, certainly, but for their highly personal and provocative fusion of geometric and organic forms, their ability to objectify primal experience, and their knack of maintaining a dynamic, contrapuntal relationship between the products of impulse and those of calculation. This is painting that takes itself very seriously and that demands total concentration from its viewers. It is stern and uncompromising -- one could even say harshly judgmental -- in its attitude, and almost as lacking in anything pleasurable or sensuous as Picasso's ``Guernica.''

Here and there, in fact, it makes its point with all the screeching effectiveness of chalk scraped against a blackboard. Oddly, however, it almost always works, probably because we sense that what he wants to communicate is important enough to warrant such a violation of our sensibilities.

Where and how far McNamara will go from here is difficult to say. There are still a few matters -- especially his handling of color -- that have to be resolved. He presents increasing evidence, however, that he has what it takes to overcome obstacles and to realize potentials. But most of all, he has proved that he has something vital to say.

At the Bess Cutler Gallery, 164 Mercer Street, through April 23. Pedro Figari

It is never wise to think one has seen it all -- especially in art -- for there is always something new or unknown just around the corner. For me, most recently, it was the work of Pedro Figari (1861-1938), a distinguished Uruguayan painter and an early champion of modernism in his country, whose colorful and lively canvases depicting the history and everyday life of Uruguay and Argentina are on view at the Center for Inter-American Relations here.

The 59 paintings and 15 drawings in the exhibition are supplemented by a number of books written and illustrated by the artist, for Figari was a man of wide culture and influence.

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Reared in the traditions of 19th-century humanism and trained as a lawyer, he was also active as a statesman and diplomat. He was so busy, in fact, that it wasn't until after his 60th birthday and his move to Argentina in 1921 that he was able to devote himself exclusively to his art. Success came rapidly, both in Buenos Aires and in Paris, where he lived from 1925 to 1933, and where he had exhibited since 1923. His return to Uruguay was marked by honors, his appointment as artistic adviser to the Ministry of Public Education, and recognition as one of the outstanding Latin American artists of his time.

That reputation still holds -- and deservedly so -- even though it has been 40 years since North Americans have had an opportunity to see his work in quantity. Those who visit this exhibition will find paintings that are modest in size; warmly human in theme; delightfully free-spirited in mood; and painted in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Bonnard and Vuillard.

This charming and engaging show was curated by Marianne Manley and includes works drawn from collections in the United States and Latin America. It will remain on view at the Center for Inter-American Relations, 680 Park Avenue, through May 19.

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