Many of today's best artists are women, but recognition lags. Evidence found in art centers as well as smaller communities

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IT'S becoming more and more apparent that women - especially women in their late 20s, 30s, and early 40s - are producing more than their share of exceptional art. Men may still far outnumber them in gallery and museum representation, and most art-world tastemakers may still not take them quite as seriously as they do male artists, but in terms of quality and range of work they're equal if not more than a little ahead.

For proof, we need only go wherever today's newer and better paintings, prints, sculptures, etc. are shown - whether in major art centers or smaller communities throughout the United States. As the judge in the recent highly competitive Mid-States Exhibition at Evansville, Ind., I was not a bit surprised to discover that the paintings I felt deserved the top awards were by young women, just as I'm no longer surprised that on my list of today's most promising younger artists there are a few more feminine names than masculine ones.

What does surprise me is that hardly any notice has been paid to this phenomenon. Serious recognition has come to a few women who are artists, it is true, but always at one or two notches below that accorded their male counterparts.

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Jennifer Bartlett may be the subject of books, numerous laudatory articles, and major museum and gallery shows, and yet, oddly enough, her name is usually missing when lists of America's most ``significant'' living artists are compiled.

The same is true of Susan Rothenberg, Nancy Graves, Elizabeth Murray, Katherine Porter, Melissa Miller, and Alice Aycock, to name just a few. Only Judy Chicago has managed to receive the kind of notice that goes with top-level art-world fame these days, and most of that is due to her well-publicized confrontational tactics in challenging male supremacy in the marketplace and in the museums.

It is clear now that the art world has little difficulty in accepting a woman as a good artist. But significant? Well, that's another matter entirely.

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) is a good case in point. Everyone speaks highly of her; her work hangs prominently in the world's most prestigious museums, and yet, if truth be told, she is still generally regarded as a ``camp follower,'' a talented disciple of the Impressionist masters, more deserving to be patted on the head for her cleverness than to be taken seriously.

Eva Hesse (1936-70), one of the most innovative and influential of recent artists, without whom much of today's sculpture would look quite different, has also not been given her due. Georgia O'Keeffe, on the other hand, is taken seriously - by the public, at least, if not always by art professionals. And Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Agnes Martin, Alice Neel, Beverly Pepper, Miriam Schapiro, and a handful of others have also entered the Big Time - although, one suspects, all too often on a strictly provisional basis.

There are many others, from Jane Freilicher and Joyce Treiman to Ida Kohlmeyer and Michelle Stuart, who deserve more recognition than they are already receiving. And when we get to the even younger generation, the imbalance between quality and serious critical acceptance becomes even more pronounced.

It's impossible, of course, to determine how much of that results from residual sexism and how much from the kind of work these artists between the ages of 25 and 40 produce. Many have rejected the very idea of working within the ``mainstream'' of American art and so have little likelihood of achieving major art-world status.

And many of the rest are too independent-minded, too unwilling to concede to the numerous subtle pressures brought to bear by generally well-meaning teachers and dealers to ``play the game'' according to the rules - no matter if those rules make any internal sense or, indeed, violate the young artist's creative integrity.

The wonder is that so many young women have resisted these pressures and have, thereby, taken the first step toward the kind of creative independence that permits them to follow their own vision.

A viewer of traditional or orthodox modernist leanings, however, coming upon the work of some of these artists for the first time and discovering that it looks like nothing he has seen in a gallery before, is very likely to be confused or irritated.

He or she is left high and dry, with few or no art-historical precedents to fall back on, no list of rules - only one's intelligence and sensibilities to guide one.

It's not that what these younger women are producing is intrinsically different from what their male contemporaries are doing. Both, after all, share common educational and cultural backgrounds and must deal with art's involvement with 20th-century issues. The differences are subtle and frequently attitudinal; they spring largely, I suspect, from an unwillingness on the part of more of the women to conform to an art-world system that places its highest premium on power, size, and the grandiloquent gesture.

Most younger women, it appears, would rather create from within a state of relative artistic anarchy than accept a system that still pays homage to such frequently deadening ideals.

There's a price to pay, of course, for this insistence on going it alone: Every artist so inclined must begin with little more than her (or his) talent, drive, and imagination, and must then either more or less improvise the art that follows or base it on the appearances of observed reality.

Thus, Judy Pfaff has ``improvised'' an extraordinarily rich and fanciful three-dimensional world out of brilliantly colored clusters of found and manmade objects, and Catherine Murphy has predicated her art upon a faithful and sensitive depiction of the world around her.

Most younger artists, however, find a working balance between these two extremes, and also manage to include whatever ``mainstream'' forms and ideas their art can encompass. Melissa Miller, Maria Scotti, Ellen Steinfeld, Louisa Chase, Joanne Carson, Charlotte Bender, Deborah Butterfield, and Sherry Markovitz, for instance, maintain a balance between ``improvisation'' and observation.

And Sherrie Levine, Jenny Holzer, Judy Rifka, Judy Haberl, and any number of others have developed the knack of being totally themselves while also successfully ``playing the game.''

Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.

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