NEW YORK — STILL-LIFE painting has a long tradition. Groupings of small household or workshop objects, plants, and fruit can be found in the art of most ancient cultures. Early 15th and 16th century Flemish and German artists often included exquisite renderings of fruit and flowers in their religious and allegorical works. And 17th-century Dutch paintings were often filled with good things to look at or to eat. It wasn't until C'ezanne's monumental canvases of such items as apples, crockery, tablecloths, and bottles, however, that still-life painting truly came of age. And what he dignified, the Cubists and the Expressionists pushed even further in carefully orchestrated or passionately delineated versions of what they had grouped together on a tabletop or assembled on a chair.
Exhibitions of still-life paintings, however, tend to be rare, a situation the Lafayette Parke Gallery here has attempted to rectify in a first-rate informal survey of the genre. ``The Still Life: American and European Paintings and Watercolors'' brings together a superb collection of 67 still-life images ranging in time from 1810 to 1988, and in style from the most traditional to the most avant-garde.
The show opens with two fine oils by Raphaelle Peale, moves on to an exquisite small 1860 study by M.J. Heade, advances briskly into the early 20th century, with examples by several of the major Cubists and Expressionists, and closes with pieces executed last year by George Segal and Tom Wesselmann.
Throughout, the emphasis is more on quality than on art history. Although almost every artist represented has a distinguished reputation, Roy Karlen, the show's organizer, has included only outstanding examples of each. There are no ``sacred relics,'' carelessly dashed off sketches or studies whose value derives exclusively from the famous signatures attached. Everything is there for a purpose. It may be to illuminate an unfamiliar aspect of a famous painter; to illustrate an elusive point about a style or movement; or simply to present a fine example by a relatively unknown or almost forgotten artist.
Thus, we find a surprisingly C'ezanne-like 1928 oil by Arshile Gorky and an elegant, atypical sumai ink drawing by Jim Dine; several highly personal interpretations of synthetic Cubist ideas by Juan Gris, Jean Metzinger, and Louis Marcoussis; and subtly idiosyncratic works by Tamara De Lempicka and Franz Radziwill.
There's considerably more to this show than individual performance, however. It is also a handsomely mounted demonstration of how well the still-life genre has adapted inself to 20th-century modernism's diverse formal theories.
Any exhibition that can harmonize, on one wall, several totally dissimilar pieces, especially Arman's ``Burnt Violin in Resin'' (which, by the way, is a real scorched violin), and Claudio Bravo's traditionally rendered super-realist oil, ``Sheep's Head,'' must be taken seriously.
And that isn't all. Take a few steps to the right, and one encounters good to major works by Emil Nolde, Max Beckman, Gabriele M"unter, Max Pechstein (most particularly his powerful ``Nude, Tile, and Fruit''), and Louis Valtat. Move to the left, and one discovers excellent examples by Milton Avery, Walter Murch, Edouard Vuillard, and Marsden Hartley. Go a little further, and one finds oneself before a cluster of Cubist and post-Cubist paintings. And further still, a number of outstanding 19th-century still-lifes come into view.
Surprisingly, all go together beautifully. Although quality undoubtedly had something to do with that, credit must also go to Mr. Karlen's judicious selections. Faced with several possibilities, he chose to include one of Fernando Botero's most sensitive and accomplished drawings, his 1980 ``Still Life.'' And near it, he hung one of Charles Demuths' finest 1920 watercolors, as well as Manierre Dawson's oddly prophetic 1906 oil ``Aspidistra.''
By placing these and other even more dramatically different pieces close together, Mr. Karlen underscored the similarities that link modernism's many styles rather than the differences that separate them.
To glance across the room from Georges Braque's ``Still Life with Pears and Pomegranate,'' for instance, to M"unter's ``Still Life with Teapot,'' is to become aware that, apart from theory and paint handling, the Cubists and Expressionists actually had quite a lot in common. Both shared the early 20th-century modernist dogma that artistic quality was limited to the avant garde. And both held that a painting's surface configurations were what mattered, not an illusion of three-dimensionality or spatial depth.
It's interesting, looking back over the art our century has produced to date, to note how all of a piece it now seems. Viewed from a distance of 70 years, the Fauves, Cubists, Expressionists, and Constructivists seem more like independent-minded members of one close-knit family than like the permanently divided ideologues they insisted they were. From our vantage point, Nolde and Mondrian are more alike than either is like Monet or Degas. And what is true of them, is equally true of every other passionately committed member of the modernist avant garde.
We can see that in this show, not only because it consists of fine, representative examples from the various movements, but because the still-life genre, by its very nature, focuses almost exclusively on how a painting is made. What matters is not that apples, pears, and a chair are depicted, but the manner in which those objects are arranged and/or distorted to fit a particular style or theory.
I recommend this exhibition highly, not only because it includes a number of excellent works of art, but also because it serves as a valuable overview of a significant aspect of 20th-century art.
At the Lafayette Parke Gallery, 58 East 79th Street, through June 24.