The crucial art of our century

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The big news at the Guggenheim Museum here is that the museum has opened a new gallery off the ramp to give exhibition space to some of its finest paintings normally kept in storage -- and that it has taken the occasion to celebrate 20th-century modernism by giving over the entire museum to an exhibition of 250 of its most important paintings, sculptures, and works on paper.

It adds up to quite an event.

Most important, it gives us a chance to see several examples of the crucial art of our century on a permanent basis. It is high time Picasso's 1909 "Carafe , Jug, and Fruit Bowl" is given wall space among works of its own genre. Ten minutes spent before this painting will reveal more of the why and how of the evolution of Analytical Cubism than several hours with a book. This is especially true if careful attention is also paid to the two 1909-10 Braque cubistic paintings hanging nearby.

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Much of this new gallery area is filled with works pinpointing the more geometric aspects of modernism. Juan gris's "Houses in Paris," while not among his very best canvases, is an eye-opener. The same applies to the examples included by Malevich, Larionov, and Leger. (Leger's "The Great Parade" has a monumental impact that seems to grow every time the painting is seen.) And the nine Kandinskys on view give a clear account of this artist's evolution and historical importance.

The more informal aspects of modernism have not been overlooked. Klee, Marc, and Chagall are represented by important pieces. Considering the flood of late, flaccid Chagalls to which we have been subjected recently, it is a pleasure to watch him groping for his personal iconography in hi 1913 "Paris Through the window."

But it is Mondrian who steals the show in this gallery with six paintings ranging from 1913 to 1930. From "Composition VII, 1913," which sets the premise of his style, to "Composition I A, 1930," which presents us with the classical Mondrian, we are given the essential clues to who this artist was and why he looms so large in 20th-century art. Most particularly, I'm delighted that his "Composition, 1929" can now be seen on a regular basis.

The other recently opened gallery off the ramp is given over to works on paper. This smaller space is ideally suited for the display of watercolors and drawings and recently housed several of the museum's Paul Klees. At present it is the home of several outstanding pieces by, among others, Wols, Kolar, Cornell , and Mondrian. Of these, Mondrian's tiny watercolor "Blue Chrysanthemum" stands out with such exquisite clarity that it remains in my memory as one of the highlights of the entire exhibition.

After two trips up and down the ramp to get an overall impression of the show , I came to the conclusion that it would be unfair to discuss it ont the basis of its representation of the full range of 20th-century art. That clearly was not its objective, nor was the intention of the collection in its early days when it limited itself to nonobjective art. And that, clearly, is still not the Guggenheim Museum's main concern, as its emphasis on post-World War II art testifies.

The museum's value lies mainly in its large retrospectives of individual artists and in its group exhibitions of contemporary art. It simply doesn't have the space to mount such shows and to display large numbers of its holdings at the same time. Even the Thannhauser Wing, opened in 1965, can hold only a fraction of what the Guggenheim owns.

And so, given the alternatives, and considering the fuller range of 20 th-century art permanently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, it seems appropriate that the Guggenheim put its time and money into giving us a succession of first-rate shows of contemporary art.

Even so, I would like to see the museum acquire at least one more major Jackson Pollock painting. Our most important post-World War II painter -- and probably our most important in this country -- deserves better representation than he gets here. And more major works by the other abstract expressionists would also be welcome.

I was pleased to see Francis Bacon' superb "Three Studies of a Crucifixion" on view. It is one of his finer triptychs and shows him fully capable of transforming anguish into art.

Other outstanding works include Lucio Fontana's "Spatial Concept, Expectations" -- the best of this artist's "slash" paintings I've seen, Jack Tworkov's "Diptych II," Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park No. 96," Lee Krasner's "Past Continuous," Kenneth Noland's "April Tune," and Egon Schiele's "Portrait of Johann Harms."

but this list only scratches the surface of what can be seen in this exhibition. Other, older, favorites are Max Ernst's "Anxious Friend," Jean Arp's "Growth," Alexander Calder's "Romulus and Remus," Joan Miro's "Painting, 1953," Alberto Giacometti's "Nose," and Jean Dubuffet's "Will to Power."

All in all, it's a lively show and an ideal one to see in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art's huge Picasso retrospective. Between these two shows one can get a pretty good idea of what the art of this country is all about.

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