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Breaking The Rules - in Exuberant Color. ART FROM WEST GERMANY

CONFRONTED by ``Refigured Painting: The German Image (1960-88),'' currently at the Guggenheim Museum here, most viewers will be at least momentarily startled and confused. And why not? Where else will they see so many huge, flamboyant, exuberantly colored, and wildly idiosyncratic works by painters who broke so many rules, and with such total abandon?

Of course, they might not like what they see. Not only are the show's 170 paintings by 41 West German artists bold and brash; many were painted quickly, under considerable emotional pressure, and with little regard for the technical and stylistic niceties that can make even the most blatant image reasonably palatable.

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But then, none were intended to be ``easy'' or appealing. If anything, they were meant to raise disturbing questions, to force the viewer to think or respond in a certain way. To understand why, we must go back to the late 1940s and '50s, to a Germany defeated in war and politically divided, a country that was trying not only to pull itself together socially and economically, but to reestablish its cultural identity as well.

Thanks to Hitler and his violent opposition to anything modern in art, post-World War II German painting and sculpture was not only in a state of chaos, but detached from the mainstream of 20th-century art as well.

True, a few surviving modernists such as Karl Hofer and Willi Baumeister did their best to refocus West Germany's creative energies, but their brand of 1910-25 Expressionism and Bauhaus-inspired abstraction struck most young painters of the time as weak and irrelevant.

What the latter wanted was a creative approach that would not only give voice to their rage, frustration, and alienation, but would help establish their identities as German artists as well.

Two events helped them find what they were looking for: a pair of exhibitions of American Abstract Expressionist art that opened in Berlin in 1958, and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The first functioned as a catalyst for these young painters already threatening to ``explode'' into a movement; the second so deepened their frustration that they decided to commit themselves totally to unqualified pictorial expressiveness - regardless of the consequences.

The first effective shot in the campaign was double-barreled: the 1961 publication of ``Pandemonium,'' a no-holds-barred manifesto produced by painters Georg Baselitz and Eugen Sh"onebeck that was both ecstatic and apocalyptic in tone, and an exhibition of these artists' equally uninhibited canvases in the attic of a condemned building in Berlin.

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With that, the ``revolution'' went into full swing. By 1963, it had won dozens of adherents. And by 1965, it had effectively altered the course of West German art.

``Refigured Painting: The German Image'' traces and documents that revolution from its beginnings to the present. The show was organized by the Guggenheim and the Williams College Museum of Art, and the works were selected by Thomas Krens, Michael Govan, and Joseph Thompson. It previewed at the Toledo Museum of Art, and travels next to D"usseldorf and Frankfurt, West Germany.

Of its 41 artists, at least a dozen are already well known, if not famous, in America. Chief among them are Horst Antes, Georg Baselitz, J"org Immendorf, Anselm Kiefer, Helmut Middendorf, A.R. Penck, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. Each is well represented, and three of them - Baselitz, Kiefer, and Penck - dominate the exhibition, either by the sheer size and power of their paintings, or by the provocativeness of their imagery.

Baselitz requires some explanation. Many of his paintings appear upside down, because the figures in them have their heads at the bottom and their feet at the top. Until one knows what to expect, one's first reaction is to turn them right side up. But Baselitz wanted them that way. First, because it forces us to consider figurative subjects primarily as abstract, non-associative forms, colors, and textures.

Once one gets Baselitz's point and accepts it, his method is actually quite effective. In fact, his very large ``The Painter's Picture,'' which hangs among several other smaller ``upside down'' pictures on a huge main-floor partition built especially for this exhibition, is one of the highlights of the show. And ``The Mill Is Burning,'' relatively small at almost 79 inches square, is one of its most spontaneous and provocative.

Other highlights include Penck's 29-foot-wide ``N.Y., N.Y.''; Kiefer's three powerful images; Bernd Koberling's ``Beach''; Rainer Fetting's ``Night of the Pelicans''; Werner B"uttner's ``Bathing Russians''; and Norbert Tadeusz's ``Ironing Board.''

As is to be expected from a group of painters labeled Neo-Expressionists when first introduced to American viewers almost a decade ago, practically all their works here are figurative to one degree or another. Of course, the term is loosely applied in many instances. And even though only a handful would meet with the approval of such earlier Expressionists as Emil Nolde or Max Beckmann, they come across as true and authentic. I doubt that many will stand the test of time; but for their period and place, they were necessary, and in a way, important.

At the Guggenheim Museum through April 23.

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