Folon's Whispered Signals

Americans get first show by French painter; fresh looks at Schiele, Klee. ART: REVIEW

WORKS by three internationally acclaimed artists - Egon Schiele, Paul Klee, and Jean-Michel Folon - have just gone on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here. The first exhibition consists of 23 drawings and two etchings by Schiele, all recently acquired by the Metropolitan through the Scofield Thayer bequest; the second, 90 paintings and drawings by Klee owned by the Metropolitan but just returned from showings in Germany, England, and Mexico; and the third, 50 watercolors and 15 aquatints by Folon, celebrating 20 years of that artist's witty and imaginative works on paper.

Schiele and Klee are well known, of course, to American viewers, Schiele as one of this century's three great draftsmen, Klee as one of modernism's most original and inventive masters. Both of their shows do them justice, though the range of Schiele's, which consists exclusively of works on paper, is somewhat limited.

Folon, on the other hand, is neither as familiar on this side of the Atlantic nor as important, and yet in some ways he's as interesting. Indeed, as Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan's director, writes in the exhibition catalog, ``Jean-Michel Folon is one of the most popular and prolific draftsmen working in Europe today. ... This exhibition, however, is the first in the United States to survey Folon's achievement....'' Mr. Montebello goes on to note that the works here are taken from the artist's own collection, and they include ``his ominous early urban landscapes, his fanciful illustrations for poetry and prose, his compelling designs for posters, and his independent images of hope and despair.''

Coming upon the Folon originals for the first time, one is struck by their delicacy and lightness of touch. As an artist, he whispers. With a few significant exceptions, his images consist of delicate lines defining highly simplified people, objects, or places afloat in a world of subtle, carefully modulated washes of color. Shrewd, witty distillations of idea and mood are what matter most. If seven lines and a wash of light blues and grays can do the trick, don't expect to find an additional line or the tiniest speck of another color.

Folon has a knack for getting right to the point in images that are charming, memorable, and incisive. (In this, he resembles America's James Thurber and Saul Steinberg.) In ``Traveling to the Moon,'' for instance, a tall man strides along the horizon carrying a yellow quarter-moon as though it were a satchel. And in ``A Heavy Hearted Swimmer,'' the setting sun, sinking beneath the horizon, is slowly transformed into a huge blue heart floating in the ocean.

Folon's wit can be razor-sharp and barbed. This is seen in his illustrations for the ``Universal Declarations of Human Rights,'' published for the United Nations by Amnesty International and several anti-nuclear missile and environmental watercolors. These are harsher and more blatantly colored than his other pieces, and they make their points as unsubtly as a slap in the face.

IN many, color packs most of the punch. A huge orange arrow bursts into a totally blue room to threaten a stick-figure in the illustration for Article 12 of the ``Universal Declaration'': ``No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, home or correspondence....'' And eight blue and orange one-eyed monoliths glare down from their high judicial benches in the illustration for Article 10: ``Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal....''

Some of his most effective images, both technically and conceptually, can be found among the aquatints Folon made in the late 1970s. The forms in these prints are as simple as ever and his colors as muted, but the images are very compact and didactic. He had something to say in these works, and it's obvious he wanted no one to mistake the message.

In ``The Menace,'' for instance, massed, abstracted warriors in armor present a solid wall of aggression from which there can be no escape. And in ``The Crowd,'' a mass of sexless humans with faces consisting of three orange circles and a downward-pointing arrow, shuffle aimlessly along a corridor dominated by white directional arrows.

Folon could also create lush and exotic effects; witness ``Souvenir of Thailand'' (my favorite), with its brilliant reds and deep blues complemented by the colorful pasted-on labels at the top. And he could be coolly elegant, as in ``The Voyage,'' in which a rainbow rises from a ship's smokestack and curves upward into the sky.

Overall, ``Folon's Folons'' is a charming and absorbing show that entertains, occasionally delights, and almost always engages our concerns and sensibilities. It does not, however, represent major work. For that, one need only proceed to the 90 Klees on display in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, walk a few feet further to the Egon Schiele exhibition.

``Folon's Folon'' will remain on view through June 2, Schiele's drawings through July 29, Klee's works indefinitely.

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