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A Last-Minute Look at Masterpieces

Late 19th- and 20th-century treasures highlighted before Guggenheim closes for renovations. ART REVIEW

THE Guggenheim Museum here is giving the world a last-minute chance to see works from its celebrated collection of late 19th- and 20th-century art before the museum closes next spring for more than a year of restoration and expansion. Highlights range from its most famous to its least exhibited works, and include some of its most recently acquired ones. For this display, the Guggenheim has given over its entire spiral ramp, High Gallery, and Rotunda area - everything, in fact, except its already closed Thannhauser Wing.

The pieces include prime examples by almost every modernist of importance from roughly 1870 on, with an emphasis on paintings, sculpture, and works on paper by C'ezanne, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian.

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Many of the oldest pieces - such as Pissarro's 1867 painting ``The Hermitage at Pontoise,'' C'ezanne's 1879-80, ``Still Life: Plate of Peaches,'' and Van Gogh's 1889 ``Mountains at Saint Remy'' (as well as a number of the finest early 20th-century paintings and drawings) - came to the Guggenheim in 1976 as part of the bequest of Justin K. Thannhauser.

Seen on the museum's sixth ramp, many of the Thannhauser Collection's masterworks take on a strikingly different appearance than they have their own galleries just off the second ramp. This is especially true of Vuillard's stunning two-panel ``Place Vintimille'' - which is worth a trip to the Guggenheim all by itself - C'ezanne's simple but strikingly monumental landscape, ``Bib'emus,'' and Picasso's tiny oil sketch ``Garden in Vallauris.'' And these, in turn, are complemented beautifully by several small drawings and sketches by Van Gogh and Picasso.

One painting in particular, Renoir's 1885 ``Still Life: Flowers,'' took me by surprise, because I couldn't remember having seen it before and because it's such an atypical piece by this master. At first, I thought it was an early 20th-century work, possibly by someone with Fauve connections, but a glance at the brushwork in the painting's lower portion quickly revealed the artist's identity to me.

One of the best things about this temporary redistribution of the Guggenheim treasures is that it permits the viewer to follow the evolution of a movement (Cubism) and an artist (Kandinsky) from beginning to end, one step at a time. The entire fifth ramp is given over to Cubism's rise, fulfillment, and influence on other artists. Picasso and Braque, of course, reign supreme here, with excellent examples by both and with the former's 1911 masterpiece, ``Accordionist,'' leading the way.

This valuable ``mini-course'' in Cubist theory and history is enhanced by the inclusion of related masterworks by Leger, Delaunay (especially his important, ``Red Eiffel Tower''), Gris, and Malevich. And for anyone still not convinced of the logic and visual poetry of Mondrian's art, the museum has provided the perfect argument: first, a pair of early (1911-12) oil studies, both entitled ``Still Life with Ginger Pot,'' which illustrate two of the preliminary steps Mondrian took on his way from representationalism to abstraction; and second, a series of canvases that places his creative evolution in proper perspective and underscores the logic, indeed the inevitability, of that evolution.

Equally illuminating is the sequence of more than 40 of Kandinsky's paintings, prints, and drawings, which range in time from 1902-06 color woodcuts to his colorful geometric abstractions of the late 1930s and '40s. Here again, the viewer is treated to a kind of crash course, only this time the subject is one of modernism's most important pioneers.

Many of us know Kandinsky's post-1911 abstractions, but not everyone is aware of his earlier work, such as his 1904 oil sketch ``Amsterdam-View from the Window'' and ``Pond in the Park'' of 1906.

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Looking sequentially at Kandinsky's early paintings is highly instructive, for they offer clues of what would come later, first in his free-form and then in his geometric abstractions.

Possibly less instructive but, to my eyes, considerably more intriguing are the 35 rarely exhibited paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints by Paul Klee, which occupy the third ramp. Alternately formal, whimsical, geometric, and mysterious, these sensitively executed miniature masterpieces prove once again what a richly imaginative and subtly inventive artist Klee was.

The museum's seventh ramp features a selection of contemporary American and European sculpture by, among others, Phoebe Adams, Joseph Beuys, Bryan Hunt, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Lobe, David Nash, Charles Simonds, and Gilberto Zorio. The pieces range in date from 1971 to 1987 and draw on the wide range of materials and processes introduced in the 1960s. As a complement to this installation, Richard Long's large sculpture ``Red Slate Circle'' is on view on the Rotunda floor.

And finally, selections from the museum's superb collection of Brancusi sculptures can be seen in all their splendor in the High Gallery. Included among other major examples of his work are the vertical carved wooden ``Adam and Eve'' and ``King of Kings,'' and his exquisite marble, ``The Muse.''

At the Guggenheim Museum through Sept. 3.

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