The superb art of Max Weber, and of 'Metal in Africa'; Our critic as a painter -- and a look at two touring shows

Readers have asked from time to time if having been a painter for many years has helped or hindered me as an art critic.

The answer is simple: It has been of inestimable value, especially in helping me understand what it takes to create art.

I started to draw at 10, and began falling in love with old-master paintings and prints (starting with Rembrandt's) at 11. By the time I was 15, I could draw quite well, and counted Michelangelo and a good two dozen other old-master artists among my closest ''friends.''

College meant art and art history - and I ended up with an advanced degree incorporating both. Since then, my life has been involved with my own painting, a consuming curiosity about the art and artists of all periods, and an active involvement with the contemporary art world (as exhibiting artist, art appraiser , and advisor to collectors).

The result, over the years, has been a large body of art works that were both very personal and very much ''in dialogue'' with one or another old or new master - or with a particular style or movement. I've made delicate pencil studies of trees in Central Park, expressionistic watercolors of the Maine coast , and bold abstractions out of squares and circles. I've painted 20-foot Abstract-Expressionist canvases that required gallons of thinned-down paint and a half-dozen electric fans to move that paint around. And I've spent weeks on canvases creating interior fantasy worlds out of extravagant creatures and colors.

And that's only part of the story, for while I was carrying on this ''dialogue'' with the art of others in order to understand what and why they were doing what they were doing, I was also working very hard at my own art.

All these experiences started coming together in 1977, when I began to write about art, and they've continued to do so ever since.

After 40 years of painting, studying, and discussing art with everyone from John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton in the early 1940s, to some of the best younger artists and art professionals of today, I feel very fulfilled in my role of art critic.

And why not? Where else could everything I've experienced about art be put to better use - as I view an exhibition of old-master drawings, a show of Cezanne watercolors, some prints by Jim Dine, or a very new and somewhat perplexing work by a young artist in SoHo. It's all there, and because it is, I have a pretty good idea of howm these artists did what they did - as well as more than just a hint of whym they did it. Weber and the avant gard

Max Weber (1881-1961), was an extraordinary artist who created art of depth and character while also serving as a leading member of the American avant garde.

He was always fascinated by the significantly new and by those who produced it. As a youngster, he befriended Henri Rousseau in Paris, when the great ''primitive'' painter was still unknown to the general public. (Rousseau, as a matter of fact, threw one of his famous soirees in Weber's honor, and exhorted the young artist ''not to forget nature.'')

Weber helped Matisse establish an art class in 1908, and became increasingly involved with the European avant garde during that year. And in 1909, upon his return to New York, he became affiliated with Alfred Stieglitz's famous modernist gallery ''291.''

It wasn't long before he was an active member of the New York art world. Two of his paintings were accepted for the 1913 Armory show, but were withdrawn by him when other works of his were rejected. And by 1915 he was beginning to receive the first real taste of success.

For a full accounting of Weber's art during this and subsequent periods, I recommend a touring exhibition - currently at the Jewish Museum here: ''Max Weber: American Modern.'' It is the most comprehensive showing of his art ever mounted, consisting of 150 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings - some of them never before shown publicly.

Organized by subject, the exhibition includes still lifes; figures (including portraits, nudes, genre, and themes of Jewish life and culture); landscapes; and cityscapes. All of Weber's painterly approaches are included, from academic student work, through early Cubist and Expressionist studies, to his mature, richly painted and highly personalized form of figurative Expressionism.

It is a memorable show, and a particularly rewarding one for anyone interested in the history of American art during the first half of this century. After its closing at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, on Jan. 16, it will travel to the Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla., (Feb. 18 to April 10); the McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, Texas, (May 22 to July 31); and the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Neb., (Aug. 27 to Nov. 5). ''The Art of Metal in Africa''

The African-American Institute's small but generally superb exhibitions of African art are always worthwhile.

Its current exhibition, ''The Art of Metal in Africa'' (later to tour) is no exception, thanks largely to Marie-Therese Brincard, the institute's art-exhibition director and the curator of this show.

It is exceptional for several reasons: the quality of its art, the rarity of such a selection of African metalwork in America (the last major show of this kind was held in Philadelphia in 1959), and the beautiful and effective way its 133 items are displayed.

Although most of the sculptures are small - and a few quite tiny - many covey a monumentality at odds with their actual size. That is true even though the pieces were executed in various metals (iron, silver, brass, tin, aluminum, and bronze) and come from different areas, mostly in West and Central Africa.

The broad selection includes rings, pendants, bracelets, vessals , staffs, bells, masks, and figures. Some pieces are extremely stylized and simple, others wonderfully sophisticated and complex. Among the latter is a remarkable kuduom (a type of cast bronze vessal often used by African royalty) from Ghana, an exceptional Nigerian bronze mask, and a small but stunning ceremonial bowl, whose specific point of origin is unknown.

I was also very taken by a marvelous bronze ''Bell in Human Shape'' from Nigeria, a bronze ''Anthropomorphic Figure'' from Eastern Nigeria, and a delightful bronze ''Hippopotamus'' also from eastern Nigeria.

After its closing at the African-American Institute, 833 United Nations Plaza , on Jan. 5, this excellent show will travel to the Sewall Gallery, Rice University, Houston (Feb. 3 to April 10) and then to the Charles W. Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, Calif. (June 18 to Sept. 5).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.