Zago's American vision -- and art's long-distance runner

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In a little over two years, Tino Zago has gone from being simply one of the most promising artists to one of the best around. When I first wrote about him (see the arts page of June 26, 1980), he was still in the throes of painterly self-realization. His large, passionately done canvases - in which echoes of both Matisse and Marsden Hartley coexisted with elements of his own creative vision - were truly extraordinary - but still a bit unresolved. By the time of his next show 10 months later, however, he had made a quantum leap forward, and by his next, he had fully consolidated his gains.

In his current exhibition at the O.K. Harris gallery he stands fully and clearly on his own and establishes himself as one of America's majorcq younger painters. He has everything going for him: a marvelous way with paint; a subtle sense of color; a remarkable intuition for scale; a style that fuses several of modernism's best painterly ideas with a very American vision of space and landscape; and total painterly authority.

His canvases are large - several are huge - but that's as it should be. His art, after all, is celebratory and depicts the great out-of-doors. Or at least that's one reading of it, for these paintings of streams and ponds, with rocks, grasses, and branches of trees lining and intersecting them, could just as well be huge painterly explosions in the Abstract Expressionist tradition.

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Either interpretation, although ''correct,'' would be much too narrow, however. To really perceive the point of these works we must resist calling them either representational or abstract and instead remain in a state of dramatic tension between these two extremes. Only then will these extraordinary paintings function for us as they were intended to by the artist.

This truly impressive and exciting exhibition will remain on view at O.K. Harris, 383 West Broadway in SoHo, through Jan. 29. Art's long-distance runners

There is no such thing as age in art. Longevity and experience, increased mastery and character, yes - the passing years generally do give an artist those. They have also been known to give an artist greater simplicity and focus, and to enable him to create more humbly and directly from within himself.

But age, and what that implies - no. Age never has had, and never will have, anything to do with art or with its creative processes.

If proof is needed - and I doubt any is in this season which has seen such ''long distance runners'' as Jean Dubuffet, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, and the late Grandma Moses more than holding their own against artists several decades their junior - I offer in evidence the recent paintings of Esteban Vicente.

A number of these can be seen in Vicente's 80th birthday exhibition at the Gruenebaum Gallery here. To my mind it's his best show ever, with three or four paintings that top anything else of his I've seen. It proves conclusively that he is not only one of America's most dedicated abstract painters but one of its most subtle and sensitive colorists as well.

The works themselves continue to explore Vicente's longtime fascination with color luminosity - most particularly as it is evoked within rigidly two-dimensional spatial systems. And also as it is brought about by exquisite color placement, an extremely sophisticated painterly ''touch,'' and a wondrously shrewd way with line.

What Vicente can do with a small dash of green, a flash of icy blue, or a smudge of red has to be seen to be believed. His color relationships and dramas both stun and delight our sensibilities and cause us to wonder why we never before realized that that blue, and that gray, and that particular shade of red, when positioned next to a sliver of very light green, could create such an achingly beautiful effect.

That, of course, is what Vicente's color handling is all about and why this exhibition is such a moving event. Thanks to his painterly magic, we are led to experience subtleties and nuances of color we never knew existed before.

To accomplish this requires exceptional sensitivity, intelligence, and a great deal of experience - no matter how simple and easy it may appear. But then , Vicente has always had a special way with paint - or at least he did as long as I can remember (and that goes all the way back to the days of the Abstract Expressionists when he already was a very well-known painter, and I was still somewhat wet behind the ears).

At the Gruenebaum Gallery, 38 East 57th Street, through Feb. 5. Pierpont Morgan shows

I know I should have responded more enthusiastically to the Pierpont Morgan Library's current exhibition, ''The Last Flowering: French Painting in Manuscripts, 1420-1530.'' It has everything anyone could ask for in such a show: approximately 130 of the very finest manuscripts drawn from both the Morgan Library and other American collections; an excellent display system, which permits the viewer to study even the tiniest of the miniatures; and a scholarly and fully illustrated exhibition catalog.

I just couldn't, however, get caught up by these little paintings with their beautifully rendered texts, no matter how exquisite, special, rare - even breathtakingly lovely some of them were. I do not deny that they are beautiful and important or that a few of them probably qualify as great art. I'm reporting only that I couldn't get beyond their extraordinary craftsmanship or forget how much loving care had gone into their execution. I was impressed and occasionally overwhelmed but never really moved by them. My eyes were enchanted and my mind was respectful, but my heart remained curiously detached. Rembrandt's etchings

I felt very differently, however, about the Rembrandt etchings also on view at the Morgan Library. Although also relatively small, quite a few are among the very greatest and most moving works of art ever made by man.

''Rembrandt's Etchings of the Life of Christ'' is a small exhibition of absolutely first-rate prints. It consists of 40 works drawn from the library's collection, and includes such masterpieces as ''Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves - The Three Crosses'' (seen in three of its four states); ''The Hundred Guilder Print''; ''The Descent From the Cross by Torchlight''; ''Christ Preaching'' (seen in two dramatically different impressions); and ''The Presentation in the Temple in the Dark Manner.''

Also included are two states of his large ''Christ Presented to the People,'' the first and fifth states of ''The Flight into Egypt,'' and various earlier and smaller etchings of only negligibly inferior quality.

This exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see graphic greatness up close and at work - to see how Rembrandt reworked his images from state to state, or varied them by wiping and inking his plates in different ways or by trying another kind of paper. It's a superb show that should be seen by everyone but most especially by those printmakers who prefer to have their ''prints'' photoengraved and then mechanically run off. It would show them what real printmaking is all about!

Both the Rembrandt and the French Manuscript exhibitions will remain on view at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through Jan. 30.

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