Picturing the human face and form in recent years

It's always tempting to blame the messenger for bad news, or a museum for accurately presenting an unhappy situation in a show.

The Whitney Museum's current exhibition here, ''Focus on the Figure: Twenty Years,'' is a good case in point. Few museum shows in recent memory have presented us with so many merely fair to awful examples of art devoted to the human face and form as this one. And yet, as a sampling of what has taken place in figurative art these past 20 years, it is generally accurate, well-chosen, and to the point.

We have Barbara Haskell to thank for that, for she both organized it and wrote the short but incisive essay for the accompanying brochure. Among the 23 American painters included are such old standbys as Jack Beal, Willem de Kooning , Alex Katz, Alfred Leslie, Roy Lichtenstein, Alice Neel, Philip Pearlstein, Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann. There are also a few ''loners'' like William Beckman, Joan Brown, Gregory Gillespie, and Jim Nutt.

But the main attraction--at least for those who want their art as up-to-the-minute as possible--are those bushy-tailed and controversial figures: Jonathan Borofsky, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel.

This may be the first opportunity many out-of-towners will have to see the paintings of this trio--or the work of the other more notorious newcomers, Eric Fischl, Jedd Garet, and Robert Kushner. If only for that reason, this exhibition serves a worthwhile purpose, since it is almost impossible these days to pick up an art magazine without encountering pictures and text detailing fully and precisely what these painters are up to, and having one's curiosity stimulated about what the original paintings actually look like.

Beyond that, however, this show illuminates certain dramatic differences between the art of the 1950s and 1960s, and that of the past decade. As Barbara Haskell writes in her essay: ''In the mid-1970s young artists began to challenge the formalist conventions of the preceding generation by introducing raucous color, decorative surfaces, and recognizable imagery into their work--elements which were virtually anathema to the minimalist sensibility.

''By the late '70s the change seemed complete. Emotive handling took precedence over impersonal fabrication; intuition replaced logic; eccentric configurations replaced reductivist structures. Feeling and content became paramount for the first time since abstract expressionism--the pendulum of art had swung from classicism to romanticism.''

This change found its most popular form in figurative art that was wildly emotive and expressionistic, and that cared less for surface accuracy and solemnity than for impulsive and wildly imaginative distortions and exaggerations.

This, of course, is partially what some of the more recent works in this show are all about. In that respect it is intriguing to see the more conventionally ''realistic'' paintings of Leslie, Beal, Pearlstein, and Gillespie hanging near the highly idiosyncratic works of Schnabel, Salle, Borofsky, and Garet. The thematic and aesthetic distance between them is tremendous, and pinpoints as well as anything could our 20th-century tendency in art to swing wildly from one extreme to another whenever a particular style no longer enchants or has the power of dogma--or whenever the mood of the country changes.

Although I found some of the more recent things quite dreadful, I cannot say I was particularly enchanted by the ''older'' paintings either. Beal's ''Prudence, Avarice, Lust, Justice, Anger'' is just as silly as Salle's ''Seeing Sight,'' even though the former is a technically superb painting and the latter is not. And, as art, Robert Longo's ''Men in the Cities: Outdoor Life No. 2'' strikes me as equally insignificant as Katz's ''The Red Smile.''

Even so, the very worst pieces belong in the category of the ''new.'' Susan Rothenberg's ''Untitled Head'' is a bad joke in every sense of the word (and I'm sorry, because she's one of the most interesting younger painters around) - and no matter how you look at it, Borofsky's ''Splithead at 2673047'' is a disgrace in its grotesque distortion of a human image.

As for what I liked, well there were the two de Kooning's, Pearlstein's ''Female Model in Kimono, Male Model on Chief's Blanket,'' and Gillespie's ''Self-Portrait in Studio.''

At the Whitney Museum through June 13.

''Abstract Drawings: 1911-1981''

Also at the Whitney Museum is a selection of abstract drawings from the Museum's permanent collection, dating from 1911 (Max Weber's ''Forest Scene'') to 1981 (Leon Polk Smith's ''Pregnant Space''). In between are excellent examples of the work of many major 20th-century Americans including Baziotes, Calder, Davis, Diebenkorn, Dove, Gorky, Guston, Smith, and Tobey. It's a small exhibition, but a superb one, and presents the viewer with many valuable clues to what the larger and more finished works of these artists are all about.

At the Whitney Museum through July 11.

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