New York — Frank Stella is one of the true stars of post-World War II American art, and one of its most prolific painters. He also has the distinction of having started at the top, with a premier exhibition in 1959 that attracted serious attention and almost immediately established him as a major new talent. From there, things moved swiftly. He consolidated his position in the '60s with large, brilliantly colored shaped canvases, and has led the way toward new forms and ideas ever since.
But that's not all. He is also a first-rate printmaker, as can be seen in his current print retrospective at the Whitney Museum. (See Jan. 25 arts page.)
To top it off, Stella has applied his talents to several unusual projects. These range from informal paper reliefs to huge, three-dimensional and brightly colored wall pieces. Among the most important and most beautiful of these projects is his series, ''Polish Wooden Synagogue Constructions,'' completed in the early '70s.
The series has an interesting history. It began in 1970, when Stella discovered a book illustrating Polish 17th- to 19th-century wooden synagogues later destroyed in the Holocaust. He was moved and challenged by these structures, with their highly original forms and innovative carpentry techniques , and he produced a series of 42 drawings in which he adapted something of their spirit and form to his own distinctive style.
Once these drawings were finished, 40 of them were translated into maquettes. These, in turn, were transformed into large constructions averaging 9 1/2 feet in height. By 1974, some 130 of these painted collages and mixed-media constructions had been completed.
Six of the best of these ''Polish Wooden Synagogue Constructions'' are currently on view at the Jewish Museum here. Each of the six takes its title and inspiration from a different synagogue, and each also represents a different stage in the evolution of the series. Also on view are maquettes, drawings, and photographic reproductions of each synagogue.
The constructions are irregularly shaped and hang from the wall. They range from flat collage to low relief, with surfaces that include painted canvas, felt , and Kachina board. Although most are mixed-media pieces; ''Nasielk IV'' and ''Begoria V'' are made of unpainted wood and etched aluminum, respectively.
The show's overall effect is somewhat restrained, and represents a midpoint between Stella's creative extremes of severity (his early ''pinstripe'' series), and exuberance (his most recent prints and constructions). The formal relationships between the constructions and the synagogues that inspired them are obscure and at times difficult to determine. What parallels do exist seem as much a matter of coincidence as of planning, with Stella's style undergoing only a minimum adjustment while incorporating whatever it was about the formal nature of the synagogues that challenged him.
The major exception is ''Nasielk IV.'' The fact that it is wood, pure and simple, gives it an identity closer to that of the synagogues than any other. And yet, that very fact detaches it somewhat from the mainstream of Stella's art. It is successful, but lacks the zest and impact of Stella's best work, such as his engagingly colored ''Brzozdowce I,'' and the all-aluminum ''Begoria V.''
At The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, through May 1. American landscape painting
If Frank Stella is one of the stars of American art, then the New York Historical Society is one of its special, although relatively little-known treasures. This is particularly true in two areas: the society's magnificent holdings of Audubon prints and watercolors and its outstanding collection of American landscape, genre, and portrait paintings.
Although both collections are highly regarded by the art world, the public at large, especially that part of it living outside New York, is generally unaware of them. And that's a pity, because Audubon is better represented there than anywhere else and the society's collection of 19th-century American landscape and genre art is excellent - and in some instances nothing less than first-rate.
To help rectify this situation, the society has assembled a marvelous exhibition, drawn largely from its extensive holdings of American landscape and genre art. Included are over 50 paintings, as well as numerous drawings, engravings, and watercolors dating from the 18th century to the early 20th century.
The focus of the exhibition is a chronological view of landscape painting from J. Wilkie's 18th-century view of Kingston to the expansive and richly textured pictures of the Hudson River School. Of particular interest are Thomas Cole's two series of epic paintings, ''The Course of Empire'' (owned by the society) and ''Voyage of Life'' (on loan from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute). Finding these two extraordinary series in the same room is quite an occasion in itself, since it's the first time in 134 years they've been together. They make a stunning grouping, and should enable the public to better understand Cole's intentions and qualities as an artist. They are the outstanding paintings in the show, and more than enough reason to visit it.
At the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, through June 5.