A modest jewel of our time: Giorgio Morandi

There are some shows that can only be reviewed in 300 words or in 3,000 - anything in between would be either too much or not enough. The Giorgio Morandi retrospective, which opened recently at the Guggenheim Museum here, falls into this category. I'm tempted, as a matter of fact, to make my review even shorter and to say merely ''Go see it!''

Giorgio Morandi was one of the jewels of 20th-century art, a modest painter and etcher of still lifes and landscapes whose canvases and prints will do us credit for centuries to come.

He was born in 1890 in Bologna, Italy, was educated in that city, and made his career there as artist and teacher until his death in 1964. The earliest work in this exhibition is a chunky and uninspired landscape dated 1910, the latest, an utterly simple study of flowers executed in 1964. While neither of these is in any way exceptional, they bracket as exceptional a demonstration of the art of painting and etching as one is apt to find anywhere. Of the 65 oils, 32 watercolors and drawings, and 26 prints on view, a good 25 percent would have to be listed as among the most quietly elegant and ''perfect'' works of representational art of this century.

This first-rate show was organized by James T. Demetrion, director of the Des Moines Art Center. He is also responsible for the exhibition catalog, which is particularly noteworthy for its excellent illustrations (Morandi is very difficult to reproduce well), and for its four essays on various aspects of Morandi's life and art. Kenneth Baker's piece on the late works of Morandi is especially perceptive and to the point.

After its closing at the Guggenheim on Jan. 17, this show will return to Des Moines where it will be on view from Feb. 1 through March 14. American prints

Roughly speaking, American printmaking can be divided into three major periods: from the mid-17th century to 1875; from 1875-1960; and from 1960 to the present.

The first period included such figures as Paul Revere, John James Audubon, and Currier & Ives. The second, Mary Cassatt, James McNeil Whistler, George Bellows, John Marin, Grant Wood, and Edward Hopper. And the third, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella.

All these and quite a few more are the contributing artists in the Whitney Museum's current exhibition here - ''American Prints: Process and Proofs'' - of approximately 200 trial, working, and final proofs.

The main emphasis is on recent developments - technical and conceptual - in printmaking, and on clarifying for the public the steps printmakers generally go through from the moment they first touch plate or stone to the pulling of the final proof.

As Judith Goldman has written in the exhibition catalog: ''For artists, mistakes become triumphs; the inky surfaces of a lithographic stone yields discoveries. The print's intrinsic capacity for change leads to unknown possibilities. In proofs, artists can see what is and what was simultaneously; . . . they erase marks or lighten tones; discarding a plate or reversing its printing sequence, they alter an image entirely and, if displeased with the result, they restate the printing element and begin over again.''

Quite a few of these ''restatements'' are included in this show, and they add significantly to its overall importance. It is particularly interesting to watch the progression of Chuck Close's ''Keith,'' Jim Dine's ''Five Paintbrushes,'' Frank Stella's ''Polar Coordinate Variant III,'' and Claes Oldenburg's ''Double Screw Arch Bridge.''

And to watch the evolution of the prints of Nathan Oliveira and Helen Frankenthaler.

Lest the viewer get too one-sided an impression of American printmaking, however, I'd suggest particular attention be paid to the prints included from the 1875-1960 period. There are some real gems, especially works by Cassatt, Whistler, Arms, Hopper, Marin, and Wood.

At the Whitney Museum through Jan. 24.

New print gallery

There are so few serious print galleries around that the opening of a new one is always an important occasion. This is especially true if the location chosen is not where most galleries cluster but in an area short of galleries.

The Mary Ryan Gallery has just opened at 452 Columbus Avenue, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, with an excellent exhibition of prints of the WPA era. There are works by 15 American artists, including Lozowick, Barnet, Becker, Leighton, Jules, and Wengenroth.

It's a small gallery, but run by someone who obviously knows what she is doing. The current show will remain on view through Dec. 24.

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