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Crisp and indisputable

`IT'S all there in black and white,'' we say, meaning - what could be more definite, less disputable, clearer? The printed word exploits the extreme ends of the tonal range, darkness in contrast to light. Something of its authority derives from this polarity, ignoring the luxuries of color and even the intermediary gradations of gray. Increasingly, though, our world of visual communications uses color: television, computers, pictures from outer space, even newspapers. It costs more today for amateur photographers to have monochrome photographs processed than color ones - a small revolution of comparatively recent occurrence.

In all this familiarity with color, the potency of black and white is beginning to look unexpected. A small exhibition at one of London's commercial galleries (the Nicola Jacobs Gallery, Cork Street, through Sept. 5) shows how 20th-century painters and sculptors - the works on view date from 1922 to 1987 - have never stopped exploring the uses of jet black vs. paper white. As Matisse once said: ``Black is a force: I depend on black to simplify the construction.'' In art, black/white can be starkness, simplification, vigorous expressionism, primitiveness. It sparks a visual chemistry effective enough to make color seem excessive or redundant.

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Hans Arp's amusing collage ``The Navel and its Shadow'' (1925) uses black and white to give maximum vitality to the fluid contour of a lucid shape. A game of to-and-fro is set up between the white and the black, so that they alternate as solid and space, as positive and negative. The white is rendered crisply brilliant by the sharp intensity of the black. Vigor rather than conflict results from the interlocking jigsaw of black sinuosity and white meander.

Arp was a proponent of the ``laws of chance'' in the making of his images - reliefs, drawings, paintings, collages, sculpture, poems - and was one of the notable figures in the mischievous, enigmatic DADA happenings in Europe between 1915 and 1923. The form of ``The Navel and its Shadow'' is typical of the happenstance and naturalness of his work, a shape that could be a leaf, a bone, or a stone reduced to a silhouette. It could also be a figure, a dancing figure.

Arp had married the artist/dancer Sophie Taeuber in 1922, and he attributed to her ``clear work and her clear life'' his discovery of the ``right way, the way to beauty'' in his art. Taeuber's dancing has been described as ``full of drollery, irony, caprice, invention and nervous grace.'' Similar things could be said of the fluid formations of Arp's art.

As for the English artist Patrick Caulfield, his art exploits, not without irony, certain visual com-monplaces that appeal to him as still containing meaning if presented in fresh terms. ``Cream Glaze Pot'' of 1979 appears to be a version of some of the more obvious features of Japanese or Chinese painting - flowers, vase, screens, distant mountain peaks. Caulfield treats them not so much as particularly observed or sensitively appreciated, but as elements in a composition. He astonishingly reduces the features to an even greater economy than they would have had in the first place, to a black-white oversimplicity that seems at first glance both mechanically insensitive and manually careless. Perhaps he is commenting visually on the degraded form of Oriental ``art'' one finds decorating cheap, mass-produced Western dinner plates or the walls of restaurants.

But if he uses a clich'e as a starting point, Caulfield makes of it something new and positive. ``Cream Glaze Pot'' is a striking, organized image in its own terms, which turns out to be a design of classical balance as well as a vigorous interplay of the strict and the free. The ragged black paint-shapes of the unnamable flowers - they have no need for stalks or leaves - have all the vibrancy of strong color. Heavy black outlines, like the leading in stained glass, form the flat white paper into the convexity of the vase, the planes of the screens. With no more than the loosest of brushstrokes indicating ``mountain,'' this same unvarying white is made to move from being the floor or sill on which the vase sits to the remote distance and height of the peaks.

Caulfield has said he admires the paintings of Juan Gris, because they are ``without feelings of doubt.'' He also likes ``the idea that things have been done in the most minimal fashion, that you don't keep adding.'' It is not hard to see what this means for his own painting in a work like ``Cream Glaze Pot,'' so forcefully and unmistakably there in black and white.

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