There are painters who are born into - and who create entirely within - a solid, well-ordered artistic tradition. Others deny tradition and paint as idiosyncratically as they please. Still others are giants and end up dominating the tradition they helped bring into being.
But there is another, special category of artist: those rare individuals who are born at the very end of one tradition and who master it, but who then forge ahead to bridge the no man's land between the old tradition and the new.
We don't always remember who these artists were, because the ideas they evolved were generally taken up and made more effective by those who followed. And they themselves are remembered (if they are at all) largely as theorists and minor prophets whose contributions can usually be found listed in a footnote or two in the art history books detailing their period. Before long, they and their art are forgotten - except for a few yellowed articles, and a handful of paintings hanging in the back rooms of dealers, or on the walls of our smaller museums.
It's a pity, and in some cases a tragedy, because a few of these artists were superb painters as well as innovators, with a body of work that deserves full public attention.
Such is the case with Morton Schamberg (1881-1918), who began as a conservative student of William M. Chase and ended up as one of America's most innovative, if almost forgotten, painters.
Fortunately, Schamberg has a few latter-day champions who are doing all they can to alert the art community of his true worth. Since their most powerful argument is the quality of his art, they are seeing to it that his paintings receive the best possible exposure, in both an aesthetic and scholarly context.
Proof of this concern can be found in the excellent exhibition of Schamberg's work now at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries here, and in the equally excellent essay on his work and life by William C. Agee in the accompanying catalog.
The exhibition traces Schamberg's development from his 1907 Impressionistic ''The Regatta,'' through his early ventures into post-Cubist modernism and a color-oriented form called orphism, to his brilliantly innovative paintings and studies celebrating the machine.
What comes across most dramatically is that Schamberg was a much better painter than we had thought, with a broad and rich color sensibility (which could, however, narrow itself down to the most subtle of muted hues), and a first-rate flair for structure and design. Even his smallest paintings are monumental in effect and so structurally compact as to be all of a piece. He also had an extraordinary knack for formal distillation, and a strong sense of placement and character. Most of all, he had an uncanny intuition about the nature and ultimate significance of the art of his time.
It's one thing, after all, to have exceptional talent, quite another to have an almost seismographic sensitivity to the deepest rumblings of one's culture. Schamberg obviously had both - and to a remarkable degree.
No other American of his time could ''sniff the wind'' and sense the course of art better than he, whether its first manifestation was in Paris, Berlin, or New York. In fact, for an American several thousand miles from the European center of modernism's crucial thrashings, Schamberg evidenced an uncanny ability not only to sense what was happening, but to anticipate it to a degree.
Here again, he substantiated his avant-garde position by the sheer quality of his art, proving that he was not merely a theorist or a follower, but an artist who perfectly embodied modernist principles. It cannot be said too often that it was as a painterm using the substance and the colors of paint as his probing devices that he pushed his way into uncharted creative territory. And that it was in strictly painterly terms that he came to grips with those cultural ideas that were seeking form during the first two decades of our century. Even his most advanced and questioning pieces are couched in sensuously painterly terms, and hold their own as beautiful things as well as brilliant art-historical moments.
This is particularly true of his machine paintings of 1916, upon which most of his reputation now rests. These may be among the most revolutionary American paintings of their time, but they are also remarkably handsome works of art.
Just how revolutionary these machine paintings were is still a matter of some debate. It has generally been assumed that Schamberg was following the example of Francis Picabia's 1915 machine paintings when he produced his own a year later. New evidence, however, detailed by Mr. Agee in the exhibition catalog, indicates that Schamberg first conceived of the idea in 1912, and actually exhibited a painting with a machine subject in the 1913 Armory Show.
But even if Schamberg was guided somewhat by Picabia's example, his handling of the machine concept was strictly his own. ''Painting No. VI'', which utilizes a detail of a textile threading machine, stands completely on its own - as do almost all of his other paintings, and all of his very small pastel studies based on machine themes.
This is quite a show, and should serve as just the boost Schamberg's reputation needs at this time. It proves once again that he was one of America's best and most innovative painters, and that his death at 37 deprived us of one of our important creative pioneers.
The exhibition will remain on view at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, 22 East 80th Street, through Dec. 31.