JOAN MIRO. A beautiful, timely exhibition traces his evolution from promising young painter to modern master

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THE Mir'o retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum here has all the earmarks of an Old Master exhibition. It is distinguished, authoritative, and no longer capable of shocking our sensibilities. That's the way it probably will appear, at any rate, to anyone even the slightest bit interested in modernism, its masters and its accomplishments. Not only will many of the 150 paintings, collages, objects, ceramics, and other works on view be familiar, a number will be recognized immediately as 20th-century masterpieces.

Rather surprisingly, this show informs us that Mir'o already belongs to art history. His stylistic influence, which was so crucial and far-reaching for so long (where, for instance, would Abstract Expressionism have been without his ideas and forms?), is, for all intents and purposes, coming to an end.

His creations, on the other hand, remain as alive and radiant as ever and as capable of charming and delighting viewers as when they were first produced.

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For proof, we need only wend our way down the Guggenheim's ramp and follow the artist's evolution from promising young painter in 1915 to modern master a few years before his death in 1983.

From start to finish, his was an exceptional career, and while one might wish that a few more of his sculptures and drawings had been included, no one can reasonably deny that he has been well and fairly treated by this retrospective.

Its success is due in no small part to Jacques Dupin, the noted Mir'o scholar, who curated it for the Kunsthaus Zurich (where it opened originally); the St"adtische Kunsthalle D"usseldorf, West Germany; and the Guggenheim. The New York installation was supervised by Diane Waldman with the assistance of Susan B. Hirschfeld. Works were borrowed from the artist's family, the Mir'o Foundation in Barcelona, Spain, and several public and private collections in the United States and abroad, including the Guggenheim Museum here and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

The result is not only a beautiful exhibition but a timely one. According to Thomas M. Messer, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, ``New York is fortunate in possessing Mir'o's work in public and private collections, but a full viewing of his pivotal development has eluded this city since the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. Thus, a whole new generation of museum visitors will have the opportunity to view all phases of Mir'o's artistic career and to explore the visual legacy of this great painter-sculptor, who lived long enough to see himself consecrated as one of the 20th century's undisputed masters.''

Even if this exhibition had no other qualities, that in itself would be sufficient reason to recommend it. Anything that can dispel the notion that Mir'o was a painterly magician who conjured up delightfully imaginative forms and images out of thin air - and who thus needn't be taken very seriously - is profoundly welcome. And so is anything that can help viewers realize how deeply rooted, complex, and original his art really is, and how close it often comes to the most difficult kind of high-wire gymnastics.

The Guggenheim, of course, is ideally suited for a retrospective of this sort. Its spiral ramp permits the viewer to follow Mir'o's creative evolution without interruption and without violating his career's chronology. One begins at the beginning - with a number of his complex, precisely detailed representational paintings, moves on to the pictures that represent his first attempts at substituting ``abstract'' signs for literal descriptions, and ends up with a sequence of the radiant, freely-brushed creations that characterize his later years.

The process is pleasant, logical, and illuminating, with a good balance of large and small, bold and delicate, images along the way to sustain one's interest, and with the occasional, hitherto unknown gem or minor masterpiece to remind one of how startingly simple and delightful his work often appears at first viewing.

Most important, one gets a clear indication of how much thought and care went into Mir'o's art, and how serious and dedicated an artist he was. The transition from such complex ``realistic'' works as ``Montroig, the Church and the Village'' (1919) and ``The Farm'' (1921-22), through the ruthlessly simplified ``The Carbide Lamp'' (1922-23), to the almost totally abstract ``Bather'' of 1924-25, is particularly revealing. And yet it represents only one of the several dramatic shifts and turns his art took over his roughly 70-year career.

Throughout that career, Mir'o experimented with a broad range of media, and achieved particular mastery in etching and lithography and in ceramics. His fame as a printmaker, in fact, almost equals his reputation as a painter, while his work in clay is unmatched in quality and quantity by that of any other 20th-century artist - with the possible exception of Picasso.

Space, unfortunately, limited the number of ceramic pieces that could be included in this show, but those that are on view are among his wittiest and best. None of his prints, on the other hand, are on display.

That's understandable, however, considering the nature of this retrospective, and the fact that its primary focus is on Mir'o's paintings and works on paper. As such, it's an excellent exhibition, both for what it includes in the way of art, and for the creative insights it provides.

At the Guggenheim Museum through Aug. 23.

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