Art that was modern in 1911

An art event of extraordinary importance is taking place at the Guggenheim Museum here. It is the first American exhibition of works from the remarkable George Costakis collection of Russian avant-garde art. Included are over 275 paintings and works on paper executed between 1908 and 1932 by 40 Russian artists, all of whom held extremely advanced ideas as to the nature and the future of art.

In addition, the Guggenheim commissioned a reconstruction of the original and highly influential stage set designed in 1922 by Popova for Fernand Crommelynck's farce, ''The Magnanimous Cuckold.'' This reconstruction, based entirely on Popova's sketches (some of which are also on view), can be seen on the ground floor of the museum throughout the exhibition's run.

Although I've already seen this exhibition twice, I've barely begun to absorb what it contains. A large proportion of the works on view are small sketches and drawings that hint at or lay the ground plans for larger modernist projects, and thus require considerable concentration - as well as a willingness to accept the notion that art can be totally nonobjective, even starkly and exclusively geometric.

Any effort put into grasping the contents and the intentions of this show is more than worth it, for it is about as fascinating and rewarding an exhibition as I have seen of late. But then, I had expected that. What I hadn't expected was how truly beautiful some of its paintings and drawings are.

Most of the works included were previously unknown or inaccessible to the West, largely because the art of this period was suppressed in Russia from 1932 on. In some instances, only Mr. Costakis's intense interest in them prevented the loss or destruction of important works from this crucial hotbed of 20 th-century modernism.

What is most striking about this exhibition is how truly seminal many of these works were. In several instances, I was amazed to discover that a particular drawing or painting that looked totally on target for 1981 had actually been done in 1911 or 1921. Walking down the Guggenheim ramp past all these works, I found myself continually confronted by the fact that the first decade of this century was indeed its crucial one for painting and sculpture - and that, in one way or another, we have been dipping into the art of that decade whenever our ideas dry up, or we need formal assurance that what we are about to do is indeed in line with modernist theories or policies.

This beautiful, dramatic, and extremely valuable show will remain on view at the Guggenheim Museum through Jan. 3. It will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Feb. 15-April 15), the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (June 25-Aug. 22), Indianapolis Museum of Art (Oct. 25-Dec. 15), and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (January-March 1983).

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