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Kokoschka's art and life celebrated in major retrospective

New York's 1986-87 art season has already had more than its share of major museum retrospectives. First came the Whitney's tribute to John Singer Sargent, then the Metropolitan's blockbuster salute to Van Gogh, and now we have the Guggenheim's impressive celebration of Oskar Kokoschka's art and life. And celebration it is, with 93 paintings and as many works on paper detailing the career of this deservedly world-famous Austrian Expressionist, whose death in 1980 came just one week short of his 94th birthday.

The pictures range from a delicate 1906 drawing of a young boy to a wildly expressive oil completed in 1974; from searching psychological portraits and expansive studies of mountain vistas and famous cities to complex allegories and loosely executed watercolors of such things as lobsters and flowers.

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All were selected by Thomas M. Messer with the help of Susan B. Hirschfeld from the recent, larger retrospective curated by Richard Calvocoressi at the Tate Gallery in London. They form the first major survey of Kokoschka's art to be seen in an American museum in almost 40 years.

It's an impressive and important exhibition, and one that's long overdue. But then, Kokoschka has always been a little difficult for Americans to take to their hearts. We've had relatively little trouble with the early portraits executed in Vienna and Berlin from 1909 to 1916, and we rather liked the landscapes and cityscapes he produced in such places as the Alps, Lyons, and London over the following two decades.

We also tended to admire his drawings and to respond favorably to a few of his watercolors. And if we were pushed, we might even admit to a certain grudging respect for some of his post-World War II paintings based on classical and mythological themes.

But did we like these recent extravaganzas? Well, that was another matter entirely. We were conditioned to a kind of Expressionism that was totally ``abstract'' and to a form of representationalism that tended to be cool and ``objective.'' We simply didn't know what to make of these passionate and explosive figurative works that were so deeply rooted in the myths and traditions of Western civilization that they demanded our involvement on philosophical, literary, and historical levels as well as on purely aesthetic ones.

Things have changed significantly over the past decade, thanks, to a considerable extent, to the success of Neo-Expressionism and other less purely formal kinds of art. Kokoschka's art in its entirety seems more relevant, more accessible to us now than it's been in several decades - or possibly even at any previous time.

For anyone who still has doubts, I heartily recommend a visit to this excellent and important exhibition. It's about as splendid a way as I can imagine to reacquaint oneself with the overall body of this extraordinary artist's life's work. And for those not yet familiar with Kokoschka's art, it's the best possible way to get to know one of the most authentic painters and most passionately committed humanists of our age.

At the Guggenheim Museum through Feb. 16. `Elders of the Tribe'

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The idea was a good one - so good, in fact, that one couldn't help wondering why it hadn't occurred to anyone before. It was to mount an invitational exhibition of works by artists 70 years of age or older, and to call it ``Elders of the Tribe.''

There certainly was no dearth of material. Everyone knew that some of today's best painters and sculptors were born in the early years of this century or toward the end of the 19th, and that a number of modernism's major figures had lived well into their 90s.

The problem, in fact, would be in deciding whom to choose from the large number of those eligible.

That task fell to Bernice Steinbaum, whose idea it was and in whose gallery the show would be held. She settled on 44 artists representing a wide variety of styles and media. A few were world famous (John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, George Rickey), most were only a trifle less well known, and only three or four had more limited reputations.

The resulting exhibition, which opened recently after a year of deliberations and negotiations, is an impressive display by individuals who truly deserve to be honored as ``elders of the tribe.''

It proves that creativity need not diminish with age, that it can, in fact, become increasingly more potent as the years roll by.

Evidence of this is particularly strong in the paintings of Anni Albers, Will Barnet, Enrico Donati, Ida Kohlmeyer, George NcNeil, and Esteban Vicente, and in the sculptures of Sue Fuller and Antine Nivola. Mauricio Lasansky's intaglio print and Elizabeth Layton's colored drawing are also as strong as anything they've done. The only disappointment is that several of the artists are represented by pieces dating back two or three decades.

After its closing at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, 132 Greene Street, on Jan. 3, the exhibition travels to the University Art Gallery, State University of New York at Albany (Feb.3-March 1); Nabisco Brands Gallery, East Hanover, N.J. (March 7-April 7); Davenport Art Gallery, Davenport, Iowa (April 19-May 31); and 11 other art centers throughout the United States.

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