NEW YORK — PASTEL is a deceptive and fragile medium. It appears easier than it is: One careless gesture can smudge or erase an entire day's work. But the medium has its advantages - portability, immediacy, richness of color, and lightness of touch. All these qualities are evident in the 35 pastels by 20 Americans that constitute ``American Pastels: 1880-1930,'' currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here. All are owned by the museum but have seldom been shown. At least half a dozen are minor masterpieces, and all but two or three of the rest are outstanding examples of the medium.
This small but choice selection highlights the work produced by American artists during the roughly 50-year period pastels enjoyed, first, a revival and, then, a dramatic increase in public support. Thanks to the Impressionists, particularly Degas, pastel became a medium for bold experimentation in France during the 1870s. By 1882, enough Americans had taken up the medium to justify the founding of the Society of Painters in Pastel, the first of several organizations to bring pastel to the attention of the general public.
Although the United States may not have produced any pastelists of the caliber of Degas and Redon, it came very close in Whistler and Mary Cassatt. Cassatt's pastels are acknowledged to be among her finest creations.
Her four works included in this exhibition dominate the show. Only Whistler, unfortunately represented by only one piece (and not one of his best), comes close to matching her brilliance. In Cassatt's hands, pastel becomes as immediate as a charcoal sketch and - this is the secret of her effectiveness - as rich and full-bodied as an oil. ``Margot in Orange Dress'' and ``Mother and Child'' are good examples. If everything else of hers were to disappear overnight, she would still have to be taken seriously on the basis of these two works.
As the century drew to a close, artists increasingly turned to pastel. Whistler's delicate, often fragile studies executed with quickly drawn lines and a few touches of vivid color against neutral or tinted paper were the models for compositions by J. Alden Weir, John H. Twachtman, Thomas W. Dewing, and the young John Marin. Each of these artists is represented by at least one excellent example, with Dewing's ``The Evening Dress'' barely edging out the others.
From a purely technical standpoint, muralist Edwin Austin Abbey's large ``The Dirge of the Three Queens'' (1895) is the most impressive piece in the show. Such firm, clearly defined linear mastery is seldom seen in pastels. Much more typical - especially of the 1890-1915 period - is the soft-focused, lightly-touched approach of Arthur B. Davies; six of his romantic, sensitively rendered images are included here. Few artists approached pastel with more taste and tact or knew better exactly when to stop in order to allow the viewer to ``finish'' the image in his or her imagination.
PASTEL became a favorite medium for several of America's painter/illustrators who came to prominence during the first decade of the 20th century. Everett Shinn and William Glackens used the medium for both their ``fine'' and commercial work. Occasionally, what they produced straddled both categories. Shinn's 1907 ``Julie Bonbon,'' for instance, can be viewed either as anecdotal painting or as ``fine'' illustration.
America's early modernists also fell under the spell of pastel, often while studying or working in Europe. Marin, Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Joseph Stella, and Max Weber all found the medium appropriate for their imagery at one time or other. O'Keeffe's dramatic, semi-abstract ``A Storm'' of 1922, and Stella's 1920 ``Pittsburgh,'' for instance, demonstrate how well pastel could be adapted to a modified modernist approach. And Abraham Walkowitz's large ``Creation'' (1913-14), while not altogether successful, still allows the medium to assert itself in a freely improvisational manner considerably in advance of its time.
In all, this is an excellent and very worthwhile exhibition. It will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum through Jan. 14.