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Artistic creations that push against their showcase. Beverly Pepper's sculptures test any museum's ability to display them effectively

IT'S obvious the moment one catches sight of it that something unusual is going on at the Brooklyn Museum these days. Standing tall and straight before its main entrance, and looking vaguely totemic, are four monumental sculptures ranging from 28 to 36 feet in height and 5 to 8 tons in weight. They are there to add a touch of modernist class to the museum's 19th-century fa,cade, and to announce to the world that their creator, Brooklyn-born Beverly Pepper, is the subject of a major 20-year exhibition inside.

The exhibition was organized by, and originally shown at, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. It consists of more than 60 pieces, beginning with some of the artist's highly polished stainless steel sculptures of the 1960s and ending with several of her monolithic constructions of the early to mid-1980s.

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A number of photographs and models of site-specific works fashioned by Ms. Pepper in various parts of the United States and Europe are also included.

It is both an impressive and somewhat frustrating show, one that reinforces her reputation as one of America's better modernist sculptors, but that also subtly distorts her work's identity by presenting much of it within inappropriate or cramped quarters.

The latter, of course, cannot altogether be helped. So much of her work is expansive and grandly monumental, and the museum's interior space, after all, is limited. Nevertheless, the problem should at least be identified, since it has led a few critics to hold the work itself entirely responsible for the critics' inability to respond favorably.

It's an easy mistake to make, especially if one forgets that her sculptures are far from static and self-contained within their spaces, that they are, in fact, so dynamic and charged, so ``alive,'' that almost every one energizes an area considerably beyond its own size. Thus, a relatively small and slim work 7 feet high might need an additional 15 or so feet of space within which to ``breathe'' and to establish its full identity. And a particularly large and aggressive form might require half a gallery all to itself in order to be accurately perceived and understood.

In a museum environment such as this, with over 60 medium-size to huge sculptures occupying two galleries, and with only one room large enough to adequately contain even her moderately large iron or steel constructions, a considerable portion of each work's character and impact will inevitably become distorted or submerged. And so it has - at least in the case of many of the larger pieces (which seem uncomfortable, even alien, in the expansive rotunda gallery), as well as several of the clusters of smaller, slender vertical units. A few of the latter may be somewhat better served, but even they leave one with the impression that their wings have been clipped.

The viewer should be grateful, then, for the excellent color photographs of Pepper's various installations that are included and for the scale models that present miniature versions of several of her finest commissioned works within their architectural or natural settings. The same is true of the exhibition catalog, with its splendid photographs in color and black-and-white of finished pieces, works in progress, and installations.

Its text, by Rosalind E. Krauss, is a model of insight and clarity that not only details the philosophical and professional ideas and attitudes upon which the artist's work is predicated, but does so in a manner that leads to understanding rather than obfuscation or intimidation.

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Taken altogether, it is difficult to see how anyone can fail to be impressed or even occasionally moved by what Beverly Pepper has produced over the past 20 years. The range is considerable, from the solid and chunky to the most elegantly elongated and purely vertical, from the most monumental to such gently lyrical works as ``Amphisculpture'' of 1974-76 and ``Sand Dunes'' of 1985. The latter, in particular, designed specifically to relate to, and to be subtly modified by, the water and shifting sands of a Florida beach, indicates beyond a shadow of a doubt just how special and innovative her talents really are. At the Brooklyn Museum through Aug. 3.

`Working in Brooklyn: Painting'

Also on view at the Brooklyn Museum, through Sept. 7, is the second in a series of exhibitions devoted to the work of Brooklyn artists. Among the 20 painters represented are several who have worked in the borough for a number of years and a few lesser-known painters who have recently moved their studios here. The presentation also constitutes a tribute to George McNeil, who was born in Brooklyn almost 80 years ago and taught at Pratt Institute for 32 years. He is represented by five of his colorful, expressionistic paintings. Other outstanding paintings are by Michael David, Roxi Marsen, Chris Martin, Raul Serrano, and Christina Viera.

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