Juan Gris (1887-1927) has one of the loftiest reputations in 20th-century art. Picasso and Matisse may outrank him, and Brancusi, Kandinsky, Braque, Mondrian, Klee, Miro, and Pollock may have been more important, but no one can top him in art-world acceptance and respect.
The reasons are simple. He was a member, together with Picasso, Apollinaire, and Gertrude Stein, of the most elite and influential of all modernist avant-garde groups; he was a Cubist when Cubism ruled the art world; and his best work has the kind of dignity found only in museum art.
But most of all, he was modernism's most fascinating classicist, an artist more concerned with reconciling contradictions than in polarizing them, and a painter for whom formal perfection was not only possible but essential.
His major contemporaries thought highly of him. Picasso took him under his wing when Gris first came to Paris from Madrid in 1906, and became his champion for a few years; Gertrude Stein described him as a ''perfect painter''; Amedee Ozenfant called him ''a specialist in museums'' and was impressed by the seriousness of his study of the old masters.
His devotion to the great art of the past was genuine and deep. Like Cezanne before him, Gris believed in creating art for the museum, in painting pictures that were as impeccably designed and constructed as any by Poussin or Chardin. Again like Cezanne, he preferred an art of consolidation and integration, one that produced paintings as structurally sound as architecture and monumental sculpture.
To achieve this, he turned to Cubism, not only because it was a dramatically formal approach to painting but because it permitted him to tackle the problem of reconciling appearance and actuality (one that particularly interested him) in the most contemporary manner possible.
His choice of Cubism was wise and timely, for it presented him with the perfect format for his talents, as well as the quickest route to art-world respectability. By 1912, two short years after he began to paint seriously, he was accepted as an important member of the avant-garde, and as the crucial link between the founders of Cubism (Picasso and Braque) and the younger artists intent on modifying Cubist theory to their own ends.
Gris was much too independent-minded to play the role of disciple, however, and by 1913 he too was beginning to more freely adapt Cubist theories to his own ideas on how art should be made. He shifted from a largely analytic to a more synthetic and monumental approach, allowed his color to become richer and more complex, and embarked on a lifelong project of attempting to demonstrate that the abstract and the actual were of equal importance - could, in fact, be made interchangeable - on canvas.
By 1915 he was on his own and producing pictures that could not ever be mistaken for anyone else's. In their finality and striving for formal ''inevitability,'' and in their blunt but ambiguous two-dimensionality, they stand out from the work of any and all of his contemporaries.
He soon became well known, and he began to consolidate his reputation as a Cubist master second only to Picasso and Braque in quality and importance.
Oddly enough, however - considering his great fame - large-scale exhibitions of his paintings have been extremely rare. Art lovers have had to be content with an occasional canvas or drawing in a museum or private collection, or with reproductions in books. It was understandable, then, that the American art community reacted favorably to the news that the first major retrospective of Gris's work in 25 years would open in 1983. It was the sort of event anyone interested in 20th-century art felt he or she had to attend, and large numbers have - at Berkeley's University of California Art Museum, where it was organized , at Washington's National Gallery of Art, or at New York's Guggenheim Museum (where it will remain on view through July 8).
It promised to be a memorable occasion - and it was, although for me at least it was so in both a positive and a negative sense. It was positive because among the show's 90 or so paintings, drawings, and collages, six or seven struck me as among the finest of all modernist images to date. And negative because so many of his pictures were distinctly second-rate and flawed, and some, in fact, seemed downright trivial.
There was a degree of overcalculation, to say nothing of a decorative prettiness, in many of his works that surprised me. The more I studied them, the more artificial and arbitrary they became, an effect totally opposite from the one produced by Picasso's and Braque's Cubist masterpieces, which seem greater and more authentic every time they are viewed.
Gris was obviously at his best when he used few colors, and when he grappled with, or was genuinely moved by, his subject. There is an inner tension and a sense of controlled power in his earlier canvases that disappears around 1918, leaving him with works more handsome and pleasant than significant or truly memorable.
Repeated visits to the Gris retrospective only confirmed and strengthened my original reactions. And yet, I keep remembering those few paintings and drawings that do come across so beautifully, and that do, without doubt, add a note of integrity and dignity to the art of this century. Perhaps they are enough to assure Gris his place in modernism's pantheon of heroes.