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GEORGES BRAQUE. First look in 40 years at Cubism's co-inventor

IT'S already clear that Georges Braque (1882-1963) will go down in art history as one of most significant painters of the 20th century. Only Picasso and Matisse will nudge him out of the top spot (and then, not by much), and only four or five others will end up more or less his equals. His greatest claim to artistic immortality, of course, is as co-inventor - together with Picasso - of Cubism. That, in itself, would put him in the history books. But he also accomplished a great deal more. Not, perhaps, on as dramatic a level as what he and Picasso produced just before and shortly after 1910, but remarkable and important nevertheless.

As a tribute to these accomplishments, the Guggenheim Museum here has mounted a full-career exhibition of Braque's art that is based on an earlier version presented by the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich. Jean Leymarie, the noted authority on Braque's life and work, is the curator for both versions, while Susan Hirschfeld served as the coordinator of the Guggenheim show.

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Included in this first major Braque exhibition in the United States since 1949 are 123 paintings, drawings, collages, and sculptures. They were drawn from American, European, and Japanese collections, and range in time from a study crafted around 1900 of the artist's grandmother to several of his dramatically simplified landscapes of the late 1950s and early '60s.

Misses magnitude of Braque's career

The first thing to be said is that Braque doesn't come off as well here as he should. True enough, we get a good general impression of who he was and what he did. We can follow his career from his Fauve beginnings in such paintings as ``L'Estaque'' (1906) and ``Seated Nude'' (1907) to such late and difficult-to-categorize masterworks as ``Two Windows'' (1952) and ``The Terrace'' (1949-61). And we can even spend some enjoyable moments with several of his peripheral pursuits in chalk and pastel or plaster or bronze. But what we miss by the time we come upon ``The Weeding Machine,'' his last painting, which was discovered on his easel after his death, is an awareness of the full depth and magnitude of his accomplishments.

A painter first and foremost

Perhaps I shouldn't complain. Two-thirds of a gift, after all, is better than none. But if one takes into account the labor and expense involved in a project like this, and the fact that it's been 39 years since America has seen a major Braque exhibition, I cannot help but wish that the show's organizers had held off another two or three years, until more of his pivotal masterpieces - works currently on display elsewhere - would become available for travel to New York. It would be a pity if we had to wait another 40 years for this artist's first truly comprehensive exhibition in America.

Fortunately, much of what we do have on view at the Guggenheim is important and of prime quality. To understand it fully, however, we must keep in mind that Braque was, first and foremost, a painter, and not a draftsman inclined to fill in the spaces between the lines with colored paint (Picasso), or a colorist whose paint is often indifferently brushed on (Matisse).

For Braque, the sheer physicality of paint - its density, texture, richness or flatness of tone, and weightiness - was always of the greatest concern - and no more so than in his late, lush studio interiors and heavily pigmented landscapes. Many of his pictures were obviously meant to be touched, even to be caressed (and what a pity we aren't permitted to do so). But what our fingers cannot respond to directly, our eyes can absorb indirectly - and can then help translate the event into a pleasurable aesthetic experience. That may not seem like much, considering the formal and thematic complexities of art, but it is actually through that very process of sensing, rather than touching, a subtly orchestrated variety of textures that much of the pleasure, and some of the significance, of Braque's art is conveyed to us.

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The great orchestrator of modern art

We must never forget that Braque was the great orchestrator of modern art, the most symphonic of all 20th-century painters. More than any other, he was concerned with the fullest possible harmonic utilization of shape, form, color, line, and texture. The whole always came first. Whatever didn't fit or drew attention to itself, was removed or ruthlessly transformed until it related as perfectly as possible to everything else in the composition.

This even applied to maintaining a balance between the abstract and the representational, between invented and derived form. Even the paintings and collages of his Cubist period retain the aura, if not the appearance, of physical reality. And what was true of them was even more true of the still lifes that followed in the 1920s and '30s. Abstract as they may seen at first, we have little actual difficulty deciphering the objects from which they were drawn.

A great deal of this stems from Braque's quiet acceptance of the world in which he lived. He had little desire to romanticize it (Chagall), rail against it (Beckmann), tease it (Klee), re-invent it (Picasso), or translate it into icon (Mondrian). Even while co-inventing Cubism - which, after all, was more of a perceptual activity than a purely imaginative one - he remained close to the world he knew.

In short, he took what lay around him and turned it into art. As simple as that. How he did it, however, is a bit more complicated - but then, that is what this exhibition is all about.

At the Guggenheim Museum through Sept. 11.

Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.

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