A forward-looking museum

The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., ranks among the most forward-looking and most highly respected of all smaller museums in this country. It was founded in 1964 by art collector and patron Larry Aldrich in a renovated 1783 mansion that had served originally as a grocery and hardware store during the day and a town meeting house in the evening, and was then transformed, first into a personal home, and then into a church.

In the years since its opening, the Aldrich Museum has become famous as a champion of new talent, and as a place where innovative styles and new modes of artistic expression have occasionally been given their first serious public exposure. As a result, several of its past exhibitions have become recognized as milestones of museum curatorship.

Its two current exhibitions can only strengthen that reputation. The larger is devoted to exploring man's perception of himself through the art of recent years, and the smaller is a 25-year ''mini-retrospective'' of the art of Robert Natkin.

''Homo Sapiens: The Many Images'' is an extraordinarily broad and well-chosen in-depth study of figurative art of the past two decades (although it also includes a few older pieces from the 1940s and '50s). The selection is impressive, and so generally inclusive that anyone visiting the exhibit will receive a very good idea of what has been happening in figurative art of late.

He will see, among others, excellent examples by such relative old-timers as Avery, Bacon, De Kooning, Delvaux, Magritte, Marisol, Pearlstein, Tamayo, and Welliver, and by such bushy-tailed newcomers as Baselitz, Chia, Clemente, Fetting, Pench, Salle, and Schnabel. There is also an excellent Andy Warhol ''Portrait of Man Ray,'' and a heartbreakingly frank ''Self Portrait'' by Alice Neel.

The Robert Natkin exhibition is smaller, but was also remarkably well-chosen. It includes examples of his major periods and styles, as well as several smaller drawings and paintings. It's a jewel of a show, in which every piece included serves to round out an affectionately true museum-portrait of one of this country's best lyrical painters.

Both shows will run through Sept. 5. The museum is open to the public Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 2 to 4 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. The address is 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn. 06877.

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