An artist drawing on the classics. Matta approaches `Don Quixote' with an idiosyncratic brush

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TRANSLATING prose and poetry into paintings and prints has challenged some of our greatest artists, especially when the Bible or the classics were involved. Homer, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, and Poe, to name only a few, have all had their interpreters, including such giants as Botticelli, Poussin, Delacroix, Blake, and Manet. Cervantes's ``Don Quixote'' has also inspired its share of artists, most particuarly Daumier and Dor'e. Both have given us many memorable images of the tall, emaciated Don Quixote and his faithful, short, plump companion, Sancho Panza. These two characters have now been given new life by Matta, the distinguished Chilean-born painter of Spanish and Basque descent, who began his career in the late 1930s as a Surrealist, but who has since remained fiercely independent.

Two galleries at the Spanish Institute here have been given over to his delightfully idiosyncratic celebrations -- no other word will do -- of the quixotic Don.

These very free ``interpretations'' are large, bold, exuberant, and colorful and are about as far from literal transcriptions of the text as one can get. All are in pastel, and consist of roughly sketched, semi-abstract figures representing horses, knights, elegant ladies, and damsels in distress -- played off against solid-color backgrounds. With very few exceptions, the forms are dramatically distorted and two-dimensional, and depend upon Matta's no-holds-barred draftsmanship for most of their effectiveness.

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Energy -- a great deal of it -- and movement are the common denominators throughout. Most of the images in the lower gallery depict one kind of confrontation or another. If horses and people aren't crashing into each other, they are charging at, leaping over, or chasing after one another. In the largest picture, a 3-by-6-foot extravaganza that reminds one of one of Rubens's great battle scenes (drastically modernized, to be sure), there is such a whirlwind of activity that one cannot help wondering if a bomb set off amidst the combatants wasn't responsible for all the excitement.

It is only after we climb the stairs to the upper gallery that we come upon the more somber aspects of Matta's reading of ``Don Quixote.''

Here, the action is much less frenetic, and the color -- dark browns, reds, and violets with a few touches of yellow and white set off against very dark backgrounds -- induces a sense of the tragic. If the friskier images downstairs remind us fleetingly of Picasso and Mir'o, these conjure up memories of Goya and, to a certain extent, El Greco. Studying them, we are reminded, not only of the Spain of the Inquisition and autos-de-f'e, but of the fact that both Cervantes and Don Quixote knew that particular Spain only too well.

This darker side of the story doesn't dominate the exhibition, however, any more than it does the character of the eccentric Don. Matta sees to that with every means at his disposal, including all the tricks picked up over a roughly 50-year career as a highly original painter and whatever insights he has gained during his own occasional tilts against the political and cultural windmills of our day.

At the Spanish Institute, 684 Park Avenue, through June 30. Seven Spanish Realists

It may seem strange, considering how profoundly innovative, even revolutionary, Spanish artistic genius has been in this century, to come across as many excellent Spanish realists as we do today. We simply do not expect the country that produced Picasso, Mir'o, Gris, Gonzalez, Dali, and dozens of other fair to good modernists, also to come up with outstanding painters and sculptors for whom nature remains the most valuable -- if not the only -- guide and inspiration.

And yet that is the case, as was proven recently by the superb Antonio L'opez-Garc'ia exhibition at Marlborough Gallery, and as is being demonstrated in a small but very fine show of seven Spanish realists at the Claude Bernard Gallery here.

Six of the seven were born in Spain in the 1930s, and five studied at the same art school in Madrid -- which probably proves nothing except that their shared commitment to realism may be partially the result of where and when they studied art.

On the other hand, the very fact that their type of realism -- subtle, muted, extraordinarily precise, and without aggressive distortions of any sort -- is also being produced by other Spanish artists -- both younger and older -- indicates that what we have here may be more than just one generation's preference for a particular kind of art.

But, if a point of view can be shared equally, talent cannot. Judged strictly on the basis of what is on view, L'opez-Garc'ia comes off best. His pencil study of a ``Flowering Almond Tree'' is, for my money, the finest piece in the exhibition, with his sculpture ``Maria Standing'' coming in a close second.

Also outstanding are Julio Hernandez's bronze and wood ``Bedroom,'' Francisco Lopez's bronze ``Carmelito Sleeping,'' Luis Marsans' ``Library VIII,'' Maria Moreno's ``Vallegas,'' and Isabel Quinanilla's drawing ``Landscape.'' Unfortunately, nothing of Eduardo Verdasco's struck me very favorably.

At the Claude Bernard Gallery, 33 East 74th Street, through June 28.

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