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Renaissance Man and Space-Age Prophet. First-ever American retrospective displays his design, sculpture, paintings, drawings, models, and furniture. FREDERICK KIESLER

TWENTIETH-CENTURY art has had more than its share of innovators. Some were cool and rational, creating new forms and movements because reason or common sense demanded it (Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys).

A few were brilliant and probing enough to achieve originality through pure genius, a kind of inner logic, or the realization of an ideal (Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian).

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Others were impulsive or free-spirited, and effected significant change largely because they were eager to delve into unexplored areas (Joan Mir'o, Paul Klee).

And still others felt the pressures of art history so keenly that they hurled themselves beyond art's old frontiers without regard for the consequences (Jackson Pollock, Eva Hesse).

One of the more original and wide-ranging innovators of the first category was Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965), a Romanian-born, Viennese-trained artist, architect, and designer, who first achieved renown in Europe, but who spent the last 40 years of his life in New York.

His fame in America was relatively brief and was generally limited to New York's avant-garde communities. His influence upon several of the artists, architects, and designers here was far-reaching, however.

In order to document that influence and give credit to an important member of New York's art world during one of its most vital periods, the Whitney Museum is presenting this country's first full-scale retrospective of Kiesler's work.

``Frederick Kiesler'' consists of over 200 sculptures, drawings, paintings, architectural plans and models, and pieces of furniture. Among its more interesting features are the famous Surrealist room he designed for Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery; the de Stijl environment devised for the 1925 ``Exposition Internationale des Arts D'ecoratifs et Industriels Modernes'' in Paris; and reconstructions of his innovative installation system for gallery exhibitions.

Although small in physical stature (4 ft., 10 in.), he had sufficient intellectual curiosity and creative energy - to say nothing of connections with important European cultural figures - to make him a towering two-way conduit for avant-garde ideas traveling between Europe and New York.

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AS Lisa Phillips, the show's organizer, writes in the exhibition catalog, ``Frederick Kiesler ... was part Renaissance man, part space-age prophet. He bridged the past and the future, Europe and America, and also bridged boundaries between media, challenging conventional definitions of disciplines.

``Though his activities were far-ranging, they were not disconnected. His lifelong creed was continuity - the essential relatedness of all his seemingly diverse practices. `Everyone has one basic idea,' he said, `and he will always come back to it.' For Kiesler this idea was the concept of spatial continuity - of endlessness.''

This concept was to assume many forms during his career, from his 1924 ``Space Stage,'' a visionary theater of the future, constructed as a spiral tower consisting of several performance spaces staggered on top of one another, to the ``Endless House,'' a home intended to be as ``organic'' as a living thing.

Although originally conceived in the 1920s, the ``Endless House'' was not to become a major project until the '50s. Conceptually, it was correlated to the human body in both form and function. Although plans and models for it were exhibited and widely discussed, Kiesler was never able to take it beyond the planning stages. His large 1959 model for it, however, is one of this exhibition's outstanding items.

Kiesler's ``one basic idea'' was also manifested in his designs for the 1942 opening exhibition of Peggy Guggenheim's Surrealist gallery, Art of This Century. In response to Mrs. Guggenheim's request that ``a new method be devised for exhibiting art,'' he fashioned an installation that coordinated architecture with painting and sculpture. Paintings were removed from their frames, and kinetic mounting devices were used so that works could be examined from various angles and under different lighting conditions. The exhibition was a resounding success for reasons that still make sense, as demonstrated in the full-size reconstruction, complete with facsimilies of the original paintings, included in this show.

In some ways Kiesler's masterpiece - the Shrine of the Book - was the culmination of his lifelong dedication to visionary architecture. It was also his first (and last) building to be completed. In 1956, he and a former student, Armand Bartos, began work on this building in Jerusalem, in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were to be housed. The Shrine's form - a double parabolic dome - is a plastic expression for the idea of rebirth and renewal, and it recalls the amphorae in which the scrolls were found. Ten studies for this work are on display in this retropective.

But all this only scratches the surface of Kiesler's creative production and of this exhibition. Above all, it's a fascinating and timely tribute to an extraordinary artist - one who wasn't content merely to do a first-rate job, but who always had to break fresh ground as well.

At the Whitney Museum through April 16.

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