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Pastels that show why the medium deserves respect. Subtle, delicate effects not the only possibilities

The pastel medium is seldom treated with the respect it deserves. True enough, a few of its finest examples, by such artists as Watteau, Degas, Redon, and Whistler, are prominently displayed in the world's great museums. And almost every artist of note has at one time or another used pastels to touch up a watercolor or to add body and hue to a toned chalk drawing. Even so, the medium itself, probably because it's perceived primarily as a draftsman's tool rather than a painter's, has generally been relegated to minor status behind oil painting and watercolor.

There are those who don't agree, and Miles Manning of the Grace Borgenicht Gallery here is obviously one of them, for he has organized an outstanding exhibition of 48 works in pastel by 44 artists of the late 19th and 20th century.

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Most of them were produced during the last two or three years, however, and by artists representing the widest possible variety of styles and attitudes, from Claudio Bravo's precisely representational ``Blue Hydrangea'' and James Romberger's compassionately expressionistic ``Dawn on Avenue C,'' to James Biederman's abstract ``Untitled'' and Jim Waid's freely improvised ``Forest Floor.''

Clearly, however, this is not a demonstration exhibit set up to illustrate the numerous ways pastel can be used. Far from it. Anyone at all familiar with the medium and its history could produce several significant additional examples that would give the viewer an even more complete insight into pastel's range of technical devices. Wisely, Mr. Manning chose the more interesting and worthwhile course of selecting works strictly on the basis of merit and on how well their creators utilized pastel's expressive potentials.

Pastel, as a result, comes across here as a very flexible and exciting medium, one that is capable of great improvisational freedom (Willem de Kooning's 1972 ``Untitled''); extraordinary precision (Mary Jane Waid's ``Through a Glass: Imprint''); delicate impressionistic touches (Larry Horowitz's ``Winter Scene''); powerful draftsmanship (Alice Neel's ``Blanche Angel Pregnant''); and solid ``painterly'' effects (Elizabeth Murray's ``Untitled'').

Even on a purely technical level, pastel proves to be highly adaptable. It can be used directly as a particularly rich form of colored chalk, applied heavily and smeared to approximate oil painting techniques, or combined with any and all other media to produce extravagant composite effects. Its only real disadvantage lies in its physical fragility, in the fact that the slightest touch or swipe of a cloth can ``erase'' most of the color that was so carefully applied. But even this can be controlled if the finished work is sprayed with fixative and then placed under glass.

Although there are good to excellent pieces by Degas, Picasso, Roussel, Avery, and Hartley, the star of the show, in my eyes at least, is Edouard Vuillard's stunning triptych ``La Place Vintimille.'' Not only is it an elegant virtuoso piece capable of hanging next to any of this artist's large decorative screens, it also proves without a shadow of a doubt that pastel is capable of both strength and sensitivity, and that its public perception as a medium limited to subtle and delicate effects is largely false.

And if Vuillard's triptych doesn't convince even the most hardened skeptic, Jennifer Bartlett's ``Old House Lane No. 26'' most assuredly will. It is large (90 inches wide), consists of three attached sheets, and demonstrates the compositional clarity and provocatively simplified forms for which this artist has recently become so well known. Although some purists might question her ``tough'' approach to the medium, the quality and sheer effectiveness of the image argue strongly in her favor.

But Bartlett isn't the only one to bring strength, character, and a powerful sense of individuality to the medium in new ways. Jane Rosen's pastel on bark, ``Oak Island I''; Mary Frank's haunting ``Untitled (Crouching Women)''; David Saunders's classical head superimposed upon an old engraving, ``Hard''; and Paul Resika's trio of smallish imaginative pastels - all underscore the fact that in the right hands, even the most traditional of mediums can do highly personal and innovative things. At the Grace Borgenicht Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, through Saturday.

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