ONE glance at the paintings of Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945), and one knows he was Spanish. Not only because his subjects (including wealthy and influential Americans) were often posed in Spanish costumes, but because of the style and tone of his work. It is stark, precisely - almost harshly - delineated, and pervaded by a subtle, brooding, bittersweet melancholy similar to that found in the paintings of Zurbar'an, Ribera, Goya, and the young Picasso. There can also be no doubt as to his talents as a painter/ draftsman, nor to his effectiveness as a portraitist. Both are evident in ``Ignacio Zuloaga in America,'' his current mini-retrospective at the Spanish Institute here.
The show, sponsored by the Banco Bilbao Viscaya, includes 33 paintings and drawings and is the first exhibition of Zuloaga's work to be held in the United States since 1946.
One can only hope there will be more such shows - and soon - for Zuloaga's paintings possess a quality unlike any other in 20th-century art. His canvases won't appeal to everyone, of course. Some will find them a little austere, others a bit too muted in color. But for those who like their art broodingly self-contained and crisply defined, Zuloaga will be just their man.
New York obviously had more than its share of such art lovers in 1909, when Zuloaga's first American exhibition opened here after a short preview in upstate Buffalo. Although not quite as successful as Joaquin Sorolla's notable American show a few weeks earlier, it nevertheless made a deep and very favorable impression.
One critic characterized Zuloaga as ``the most able and convincing champion of the older tradition of Spanish pictorial art. ... He con-tinues almost unbroken that fundamental artistic legacy that has produced such men as El Greco, Vel'azquez, and Goya.'' And almost everyone else agreed that Zuloaga was not only a great master and a worthy compatriot of Sorolla, but also the most authentically ``Spanish'' of all living Spanish painters.
Because of widespread and passionate interest in anything Spanish at that time, American architecture, fashion, literature, music, and art all reflected Spanish influences to one extent or another. Not surprisingly, Zuloaga's highly descriptive paintings of Spanish majas, bullfighters, peasants, gypsies, cities, and rural areas fitted in beautifully with this obsession and contributed significantly to his very favorable American reception.