New York — The museums of New York have outdone themselves to make the beginning of the 1984-85 art season one of the most spectacular and rewarding of recent years. In addition to the superb Van Gogh and Whistler exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there's been the opening of a new museum for African art, the recounting of how Pop, Minimal, and Performance art erupted between 1958 and 1964 at the Whitney, and major retro-spectives of the work of Leon Golub at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and Arthur B. Carles at the National Academy of Design.
Last but not least, the Museum of Modern Art has mounted '' 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art,'' and the Guggenheim has sponsored ''Australian Visions,'' the latest in its ongoing series of Exxon International Exhibitions.
The ''Primitivism'' show at the Modern is huge, stunning, and important, and traces the many ways ''primitive'' art of Africa, Oceania, and North America has influenced European and American modernism. It includes roughly 150 modern works and over 200 tribal objects, some of which belonged originally to Picasso, Matisse, and other modernist masters.
Of particular interest are a monumental wood figure from the Caroline Islands , a 23-foot-high bark cloth and cane frame figure from New Britain, and a Malanggan figure from New Ireland. Everything on view is at least fascinating, if not always first-rate, and that applies as much to the modern examples as to the tribal works. Especially intriguing is a selection of post-1970 Western art, which draws its inspiration from the methods, materials, and mentality of various ''primitive'' societies. Among its choicest items are several pieces by Nancy Graves, Michelle Stuart, and Michael Singer.
This excellent exhibition will remain on view at the Modern through Jan. 15. It will then travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Feb. 27-May 19, 1985), and to the Dallas Museum of Art (June 23-Sept. 1, 1985).
''Australian Visions'' focuses on the work of eight emerging Australian artists who represent that country's more dynamic and controversial cultural elements. Most of the works tend to be large and aggressive, and they have a rawness about them that works well with their bold imagery. The paintings of four artists, in particular - Peter Booth, Dale Frank, Jan Murray, and Susan Norrie - deserve even wider recognition.
At the Guggenheim Museum through Nov. 25. Esteban Vicente
Elegance is not something most of today's artists strive for - or even really understand. It is a quality that requires style, tact, consistency, and intelligence, and that remains true to itself regardless of provocation. It is the mark of a civilized individual, of someone who can take the broader view, who can be patient, choose to do only what is appropriate or right - and then do it with simplicity and grace.
Esteban Vicente is an elegant artist. He has been one ever since his first one-man show in Madrid in 1926, but never so much so as now, when he enters the ninth decade of his life.
But that isn't all. His paintings have never been stronger or more sensitively conceived and executed. And even more to the point, his use of color and line, and his positioning of these elements in relation to space and mass, is more exquisite and daring now than ever.
Color is once again the dominant element in Vicente's most recent abstract paintings currently on view at the Gruenebaum Gallery here. It is also the activating agent behind most of the drama that takes place in them, and the main reason they are so effective. It is not, however, color of the sort one normally sees on a canvas, or the kind that relates hues to one another according to the dictates of a color wheel.
Vicente's color is much more sophisticated, and it is achieved by stretching the laws of color to their limits and beyond. He begins where others leave off, where others see nothing but dissonances, muddy tones, or the absence of true color altogether. His creative intuitions, however, are brought fully into play by just such challenges; the result is that more often than not, he turns the impossible upside down, achieving coloristic effects that would logically appear unattainable.
There is a kind of magic, as a result, in most of these recent works - but of a particularly subtle kind. It will be noticed only by those, however, who are willing to accept the notion that a painting's identity can be determined almost exclusively by color and formal relationships as exquisitely attuned as the finest Swiss watch, and as carefully balanced as a high-wire performer.
For these individuals, Vicente's way with color, mass, line, and space will indeed seem very close to magic. They can see, they can understand what he did; but they also know that if they had tried it themselves it wouldn't have worked.
That shouldn't surprise them, however. After all, roughly 60 years of thought , talent, sensitivity, and experience have gone into these seemingly simple and casual works - to say nothing of a creative attitude that accepts no arbitrary limits to what art can do.
At the Gruenebaum Gallery, 38 East 57th Street, through Dec. 1.