NEW YORK — IN art, 1988 was more a year of reward and promise, of official recognition of past accomplishments and of tantalizing hints of things to come, than of significant individual or collective achievement. It was a year in which American leadership in world art was once again seriously challenged - this time by West Germany. Artistic success this year was more than ever likely to be measured by the degree of outrageous novelty of one's reaction to modernist values and ideals.
And it was the year West Germany's Anselm Kiefer forced America to acknowledge that, because of the depth and passion of his large-scale canvases, he might just possibly dominate world art for the next decade or two. At the same time, England's Lucian Freud continued to demonstrate that realism in art was far from dead; exhibitions of work by Edgar Degas and Michelangelo made it absolutely clear that drawing could be as magnificent an art form as any other; and the Andy Warhol auction of art and collectibles proved that art-world hype and hoopla were even more effective in 1988 than in previous years.
It was a year when younger women artists, such as Ann McCoy and Melissa Miller, continued to gain ground, if not in their campaign for equal gallery and museum representation, then certainly in the originality and quality of their work.
Much less likely than their male counterparts to be given a helping hand by the ``old-boy'' network of influential art professionals, they felt freer, as a result - or were forced - to strike off on their own in new and often remarkably effective ways.
Not only did this enrich the art of the late 1980s, it brought increasing honor to women artists of all ages as well. The grand prize in this year's Carnegie International exhibition, for instance, went to Rebecca Horn, the first artist of her sex to receive this prestigious award since Cecilia Beaux won it in 1899.
The year 1988, in short, wasn't significantly different from the three or four years that preceded it. Post-Modernism remained the big catchall phrase for anything new that couldn't be categorized in any other way.
Neo-Expressionism continued to draw adherents and collectors, although the term itself had been discredited in 1986; and numerous clever but trivial and self-serving ideas and styles - from Mark Kostabi's 20-artist assembly-line approach to the manufacture of art to Neo-Geo - continued to receive almost as much praise as condemnation from the critical community.
Last year also saw the continuation of blockbuster museum exhibitions, with a stunning and very major Degas show; only slightly less important Fragonard and Gauguin exhibitions; and lesser or flawed demonstrations of the accomplishments of David Hockney, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Umberto Boccioni, Georges Braque, and Gustave Courbet.
West Germany did very well for itself this past year, starting with the huge Kiefer retrospective that opened in Chicago and then went on to great acclaim in Philadelphia and Los Angeles before ending up in New York.
There were several other outstanding exhibitions of recent German art, most particularly the Toledo Museum's dramatic and colorful survey of German painting from 1960 to 1988. It travels to New York's Guggenheim Museum later this month.
Creatively, however, 1988 was more a year of beginnings than of realizations, of responsiveness to new ideas, forms and styles rather than of dogmatic assertiveness as to the primacy of one approach over another.
Here again, younger women played a significant role by producing work sufficiently unprecedented and disquieting to overturn any and all assumptions anyone might have as to the future of American art.
For that, and several other reasons, it's particularly difficult to predict where art is headed. Most of the suggestions one hears come from wishful-thinking art professionals, committed to one or another style, and have more to do with variations on what already exists than with the issues and forces that shape and produce art.
One thing does seem clear, however. This year's art - and in all likelihood, the art of the next decade - will be even more diverse and open-ended than last year's. We are, after all, in a period of decreasing certainty as to art's purpose and meaning, and so are more willing than ever to view artistic creativity as an intensely private and individualistic act rather than as a cultural or social one.
With no tradition to speak of, and only the vaguest of standards and values to sustain him, today's artist can only fall back on impulse, intuition, imagination, and ambition to guide him in determining the direction his art should take. All of which is fine and good, of course - and probably as valid a way as any of deciding how and what one should create - but it does foster difficulties for anyone attempting to predict what art will look like a year or a decade from now.