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Hinting a universe

DURING the late 1940s, when Fred Reichman studied painting at Berkeley, abstract art was newly fashionable. Those were the days when Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko, among others, seemed to be making a revolution in American art. As an undergraduate Reichman could hardly avoid being influenced by the painting he saw around him. Nevertheless, he has worked for decades in a style that unites the formal concerns of abstract art with a heart-warming affection for the objects that surround him at home and in the studio. A cat, a chair, a plant, a toaster, a radio: Homely as these things are, they serve as the modest means with which Reich-man can suggest an entire world.

Japanese art and poetry have offered Reichman support for attitudes that developed out of his own experiences. After finishing college he lived in Europe for two and a half years and was impressed by what he describes as ``the concern people have for enriching the little things of life.''

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After his return to the United States he met the artist Mark Tobey, who suggested that he look at Japanese art, and Reichman suddenly found there was a great historical culture that saw things his way.

The tradition of the American West had been to paint nature as something enormously large, wild, and overwhelming. Although the Abstract Expressionist painters discarded the literal mountains and canyons of the West, they kept the huge canvases favored by 19th-century landscape painters, together with the intention to make an overwhelming impression on the viewer.

By contrast, the traditional Japanese painter shows a little and manages to suggest a lot. He may radically crop the edges of his picture or conceal part of his subject behind fog or clouds or screens. As viewers we are asked to imagine more than we can see.

In haiku, a verse form in which 17 syllables make an entire poem, Reich-man found still another example of the Japanese tendency to suggest more than is explicitly said. Like his paintings, haiku create small occasions to meditate on the entire universe.

The paintings of Fred Reichman are, among other things, a present-day expression of the interest in Japanse art that swept over Europe during the late 19th century. In northern California, where Reichman lives, that fascination with things Japanese continues to exert a pervasive influence on architecture and interior design. Among the hallmarks of California domestic architecture and the way of life that accompanies it are small, simple houses, un-cluttered interiors, and a dissolution of the boundaries between indoor and outdoor living.

In the painting reproduced on this page we see part of a cat's head, with two ears sticking up into a vast expanse of white. Echoing the cat's ears are two stalks of a Mexican dahlia plant, with pale green leaves tentatively reaching toward the sun. Even without knowing the title, ``Spring Has Two Ears,'' it is possible to imagine new life breaking through the snows of winter or the great empty spaces of the universe.

Reichman is very nearly an abstract artist. His sense of form is obvious in the visual repetition of cat's ears and dahlia leaves, and in the subtle placement of the three main elements of the painting. Like many other 20th-century artists, Reichman uses radically reduced means to express himself. But the differences are crucial.

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Where the abstract artist eliminates all references to the everyday world, Reichman suggests a universe by showing just a little of his dahlia plant and one of his cats.

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