In Houston: a show that's not heroic - but still educational

Linda Cathcart is no stranger to important, challenging, even controversial exhibitions. She has been assembling them for several years, first as curator at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., and more recently as director of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum.

Few of her shows, however, have stirred up as much debate as ''The Heroic Figure,'' an exhibition of 55 highly provocative paintings, photographs, and sculptures by 13 well-known contemporary American artists which not long ago returned to the Contemporary Arts Museum after a US government-sponsored tour of South America.

Almost everyone I met during a recent trip to Houston had either seen the show or was about to. At least that was my impression, based on the number of opinions - both pro and con - I heard expressed on the exhibition's merit. No one was neutral. Even those who had only read or heard about it were inclined to take sides - possibly because both of Houston's major newspaper critics had taken a rather dim view of it.

My own reactions were somewhat mixed. It is a predictable show, with the usual mixture of ''important'' artists of the 1980s, including Schnabel, Salle, Longo, Crozier, Ahearn, Sherman, and Garet, and with no surprises for anyone familiar with the New York art scene. On the other hand, it was not intended for a New York audience, but for distant viewers who had probably never seen these artists' work except in reproduction. As such, it serves a valuable function in introducing 13 of today's most talked-about American artists to new audiences, and by giving everyone concerned the opportunity to judge these artists' work for themselves.

Beyond that, however, I have misgivings. Neither the works on view nor the introductory essays in the exhibition catalog convince me that the show's title is appropriate. I have considerable respect for some of these artists' work, but I would never describe what they produce as heroic. The only artist whose paintings somewhat fit that description is Schnabel, and his are heroic more in intention than in accomplishment.

Even so, I recommend this exhibition. There are some excellent pieces in it, and it does introduce a few of today's more interesting and controversial figures to viewers who might otherwise not have a chance to see what they have produced.

It travels next to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, where it will remain on view through Jan. 6. From there it goes to the Alexandria Museum/Visual Arts Center, Alexandria, La. (Feb. 2-March 10), and to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, Calif. (April 12-June 9).

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