NEW YORK — ONE glance at the paintings of Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945), and one knows he was Spanish. Not only because his subjects (including wealthy and influential Americans) were often posed in Spanish costumes, but because of the style and tone of his work. It is stark, precisely - almost harshly - delineated, and pervaded by a subtle, brooding, bittersweet melancholy similar to that found in the paintings of Zurbar'an, Ribera, Goya, and the young Picasso. There can also be no doubt as to his talents as a painter/ draftsman, nor to his effectiveness as a portraitist. Both are evident in ``Ignacio Zuloaga in America,'' his current mini-retrospective at the Spanish Institute here.
The show, sponsored by the Banco Bilbao Viscaya, includes 33 paintings and drawings and is the first exhibition of Zuloaga's work to be held in the United States since 1946.
One can only hope there will be more such shows - and soon - for Zuloaga's paintings possess a quality unlike any other in 20th-century art. His canvases won't appeal to everyone, of course. Some will find them a little austere, others a bit too muted in color. But for those who like their art broodingly self-contained and crisply defined, Zuloaga will be just their man.
New York obviously had more than its share of such art lovers in 1909, when Zuloaga's first American exhibition opened here after a short preview in upstate Buffalo. Although not quite as successful as Joaquin Sorolla's notable American show a few weeks earlier, it nevertheless made a deep and very favorable impression.
One critic characterized Zuloaga as ``the most able and convincing champion of the older tradition of Spanish pictorial art. ... He con-tinues almost unbroken that fundamental artistic legacy that has produced such men as El Greco, Vel'azquez, and Goya.'' And almost everyone else agreed that Zuloaga was not only a great master and a worthy compatriot of Sorolla, but also the most authentically ``Spanish'' of all living Spanish painters.
Because of widespread and passionate interest in anything Spanish at that time, American architecture, fashion, literature, music, and art all reflected Spanish influences to one extent or another. Not surprisingly, Zuloaga's highly descriptive paintings of Spanish majas, bullfighters, peasants, gypsies, cities, and rural areas fitted in beautifully with this obsession and contributed significantly to his very favorable American reception.
Zuloaga did not travel to New York for the 1909 exhibition, however, and neither did he come here in 1916-17, when a large selection of his canvases traveled throughout the US. He did arrive, and with great fanfare, toward the end of 1924, for a long-awaited exhibition that opened in Boston in January 1925.
He couldn't have chosen a better moment. ``Spanish fever'' was at its height, and as the representative of everything Spanish, he was accorded the highest honors as a distinguished painter and was treated like royalty for his Old World style and manner.
When the exhibition moved from Boston to Palm Beach, Fla., it signaled a succession of fashionable social events. Hostesses vied with one another for his attendance at their dinner parties and made sure that someone as famous as Irving Berlin was present to entertain him.
He never returned to America, but he was never quite forgotten, even when enthusiasm for his work slipped. Those who could afford to followed him to Europe and had their portraits painted there.
When, in 1937, rumors circulated that he was to be executed for his antifascist sympathies during the Spanish Civil War, a number of articles appeared in US newspapers. The rumors of his impending death proved to be false, however, and he lived on for a few more years. His passing in 1945, at the age of 75, was marked by lengthy obituaries in American newspapers, and was followed, a year later, by a retrospective of his work.
Although the paintings and drawings on view are primarily limited to those purchased by Americans between 1909 and 1925, they do include a few painted before and after those dates. Of particular interest in this show are ``Head of a Young Girl,'' supposedly executed by Zuloaga when he was only 16 years old; ``Mrs. John Work Garrett in White'' (1929), a stunning demonstration of how formal portraiture can be made elegant and fun without losing any of its impact; and ``Mr. John Work Garrett'' (1931), one of the most informal and ``human'' of his portraits.
Without a doubt, however, the star of the show is his delightful ``My Uncle Daniel and His Family,'' painted in 1910 and now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Not only is it about as ``Spanish'' as one can get (at least to an American's eyes), but it also combines character, elegance, mood, wit, and irony in a manner that is thoroughly and unmistakably Zuloaga's. No better argument for more retrospectives of his work exists than the possibility that one of them might turn up more paintings like this.
At the Spanish Institute, 684 Park Avenue, through April 28.