It would have seemed unimaginable 20 years ago that an artist could paint a still life, a portrait, or even a landscape in an interesting or original way. The fact that so many of these artists have accomplished that feat is sufficient vindication of an energetic and promising movement which this writer - for the sake of simplicity - shall call the new realism.
As the dominion of abstraction over the art of this century finally began to diminish in the early part of the '60s, painting and sculpture fragmented into a kaleidoscope of isms and schisms. Pluralism became the catchall definition of the '70s, summing up not only the complexity but the ambiguity of the art created during that decade.
So permissive was the atmosphere that even the black sheep of the isms - realism - began to gain currency. Although realism encompasses the entire tradition of representational painting and sculpture in Western art, the abstract avant-garde of the '50s regarded its contemporary practice as hopelessly retardataire (their favorite word). But when pop art burst upon the scene in the early '60s, its irreverence cleared not only the air but the way for a revival of realism.
There is no more telling proof of the confusion this revival created than the salmagundi of labels it inspired: superrealism, photorealism, hard-edge realism, neo-realism, hyperrealism, organic realism, studio realism, naturalism, etc.
Whatever it is, this new realism is now the subject of two major exhibitions, both on view in this country. Their significance is that they not only legitimatize the movement but attempt to make sense of it within an art-historical context.
The first show, which opened at the San Antonio Museum of Art last March, was organized by the San Antonio Museum Association and has been traveling throughout the country. It is now at its last stop - the Carnegie Institute's Museum of Art in Pittsburgh - through Jan. 3.
The more important of the two exhibitions, because of its size and scope, is at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts here through Dec. 13. It will also appear at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond (Feb. 1-Mar. 28), the Oakland Museum in Oakland, Calif. (May 6-July 25), and subsequently museums in Lisbon, Madrid, and Nuremburg.
There are more than 150 works by approximately 100 artists who, in the opinion of the academy curator Frank Goodyear, represent the best and broadest cross section of contemporary American realism over the past 20 years. Mr. Goodyear considers the exhibition to be something of a watershed because it is the most comprehensive and reflective look at new realism to date. That the exhibition was mounted by the Pennsylvania Academy, the oldest art school in the country, gives the movement an additional veneer of respectability.
The lengthy, definitive catalog that Mr. Goodyear has written (and the exhibition itself) suggest his thesis that realism is not the reactionary revival of an exhausted tradition. It is rather a multifaceted movement which brings all aspects of modernism to bear upon a representational form of painting and sculpture.
What the new realists share is a commitment to the recognizable subject matter, but their approaches are often very different. For example, artists such as Chuck Close and Ralph Goings paint from photographs to achieve the most literal image possible. Other artists such as Stephen Posen and Paul Sarkisian and sculptors Duane Hanson and John DeAndrea draw upon the trompe l'oeil tradition to create an illusion rather than a depiction of reality.
One of the most notorious of the new realists, Philip Pearlstein, is ultimately an abstractionist in his rendering of nudes, whom he paints impersonally, almost inhumanly, as a ''constellation of still-life forms.'' Several of the still-life painters in this exhibition, such as William Bailey and Paul Wonner, are closer in spirit to Mondrian than the 17th-century Flemish masters. It is ironic that some of the new realists have so immersed themselves in abstract values that their work actually seems more detached from life and even their own emotions than that of the abstract expressionists.
Other still-life painters such as Janet Fish and Audrey Flack are more concerned with the sensory values and celebrate the texture and luminosity of things. Similarly, landscape painter Joseph Raffael, who works incidentally from photographs, produces sensuous, visionary images of water that are a hybrid between the aggressiveness of abstract expressionism and the lyricism of Monet. In contrast, the most familiar form of the new realism is the narrative style, perpetuated by Andrew Wyeth and Jack Beal, which often incorporates a moral or psychological nuance.
In short, it is apparent that the new realism is as indebted to the abstract movement as the realist tradition, and that these artists have borrowed just as eagerly and liberally from the whole gamut of art history. It is as if they had applied Ezra Pound's famous dictum, ''Make it new,'' to the world around them and managed to filter new images through the lens of contemporary culture.
As for the exhibition itself, the works are of uniformly high caliber, and while some of them are overly familiar, one can condone Mr. Goodyear's conservative choices based on the nature of his survey. My only reservation about the exhibition is the installation, designed by the progressive architectural team Venturi and Rauch and conceived by Mr. Goodyear.
The exhibition fans out in four directions from the central rotunda, and the sections are entitled Narrative, Landscape, Figure, and Still Life. In terms of the purpose of the exhibition, these categories are hardly more meaningful than North, South, East, and West (they are also far more slippery). One wonders if Mr. Goodyear could not have struck upon a more imaginative and illuminating principle of organizaiton which embraced the antecedents of these ''new realist'' works and thereby set in relief the imprint of the new sensibility on the near and distant past.