American art is doing well - although no big new ideas are in sight

It's quite obvious to me - regardless of what the art press and the large museum shows of ''emerging'' talent may indicate - that American art is doing quite well at this moment. And that it is broader, deeper, and much more promising than some of my colleagues seem to think.

Yet no single event, exhibition, or artist dominated the 1982-83 New York art season. And no important new ideas emerged - or threatened to emerge - to change the ongoing order of things.

It was, by and large, a year of continuity and consolidation. Artists who were ''in'' in September are still holding forth today, and the same is true of the movements prominent at the beginning of the season.

The West Germans and Italians are more firmly entrenched than ever; hardly a month passes without at least one or two well-publicized exhibitions of their work. The American neo-expressionists (for want of a better term - although ''figurative-expressionists'' seems to be gaining ground), are on top of the world, with Schnabel, Salle, Fischl, and the rest managing to consolidate their positions more every day. And such provocative independents as Susan Rothenberg, Judy Pfaff, Pat Stier, Nancy Graves, Judy Rifka, Cindy Sherman, Keith Sonnier, and William Wegman (to mention only those who first spring to mind) are also doing extremely well.

Video and film go galloping on toward new horizons, and large-scale interior installations are becoming more popular all the time. Interestingly, however, strictly ''realistic'' painting and sculpture is continuing to attract critical and popular support, and straightforward drawings from life are staging a gradual but significant comeback. It should also not be forgotten that there are still many supporters of minimal and conceptual art. Some of the latter, as a matter of fact, are quite convinced that the art world will soon come to its senses and return the search for pure form to its rightful place.

It has been easier than ever this past year to find and to buy Western ''cowboy'' art in New York, and I've never before seen so many art posters for sale. Even printmaking is expanding, toward both greater technical innovation and more traditional modes of expression. I've seen more experimental graphic art of quality and more flat-out ''conventional'' etchings, engravings, lithographs, and so forth this year than at any time since the 1948-55 period. In fact, this has been the first season I can remember in which a contemporary print exhibition (Frank Stella's at the Whitney Museum) ended up as one of the season's top 10 shows.

The art world, in short, was as open to anything and everything this past season as I've ever seen it - and was as unwilling to exercise serious critical judgment as it's ever been. This has cut both ways: The art world has never been more open to the new - and never more unclear about its goals.

What is clear, however, is that some of the season's best shows were by artists in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, many of whom are doing better and more exciting work now than at any other time in their careers. It was a joy, for instance, to see Dubuffet beating younger and more bushy-tailed neo-expressionists at their own game - and still having enough art left over to create a stunning series of works on paper. And to see Miro celebrating his 90th birthday at the Guggenheim and Henry Moore his 85th at the Metropolitan.

This season also saw Esteban Vicente's 80th birthday party in the form of his best show ever, the Louise Bourgeois triumph at the Museum of Modern Art, Louise Nevelson's handsome show of sculpture, and Isamu Noguchi's magnificent exhibition of recent work.

All these and other exhibitions by our better older artists make it clear that the ability to create lively and significant art is not limited to the very young - a fact we've tended to forget these past few frantic years. Museums

The museums continued to do their best to delight and instruct us. The Metropolitan gave us this season's biggest blockbuster exhibition in the form of ''The Vatican Collections,'' which is not as good as some of its advance publicity promised nor as bad as its critics insist. I suspect many of the latter would have liked it better, had they not expected to see one absolute masterpiece after another. The show actually contains six or seven truly great works and a very large number of excellent pieces. (It remains at the Metropolitan through June 12, then travels to Chicago and San Francisco.)

Proving that the best is not always the biggest, the Pierpont Morgan Library came up with the finest museum show of the season in its ''Holbein and the Court of Henry VIII.'' Small in terms of space used, this superb exhibition of Holbein drawings on loan from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle opened originally in 1982 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.

Before its April 21 opening in New York, its 70 drawings and one miniature were augmented by several other Holbein miniatures and a number of 16th-century manuscripts and books. The result: a first-rate exhibition of some of the world's very greatest portrait drawings. It will remain on view at the Morgan Library through July 30, and it will then return (I suspect permanently) to England.

Other outstanding museum shows were the Julio Gonzalez retrospective at the Guggenheim; Henry Moore's 60-year survey at the Metropolitan; the Milton Avery retrospective and the Frank Stella print show at the Whitney; the small exhibition of Rembrandt etchings at the Morgan Library; the Constable show at the Metropolitan; and the National Academy of Design's ''Italian Still Life Paintings From Three Centuries.''

In Washington, I very much enjoyed the National Gallery's survey of the art of John F. Peto, ''Important Information Inside''; the Morris Graves retrospective at the Phillips Collection; and the Sam Gilliam exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery.

The most disappointing museum shows were the Yves Tanguy and Yves Klein retrospectives at the Guggenheim and the 1983 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney. The first two because of Tanguy's and Klein's limitations, and the third because it reflected such a narrow perception of what is most vital in contemporary American art. Galleries

The gallery world, on the other hand, was extraordinarily representative. Relatively few art lovers were aware of it, however, because of many viewers' unfortunate habit of only visiting the ''best'' galleries, or those reflecting their own points of view.

I was most impressed this past season by the portrait drawings of Egon Schiele at Serge Sabarsky; the Noguchi and Dubuffet shows at Pace; John Walker at M. Knoedler & Co.; Alan Magee at Staempfli; Enzo Cucchi at Sperone Westwater; Tino Zago at OK Harris; Robert Natkin at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer; Mel Kendrick at John Weber; Jack Tworkov at Nancy Hoffman; and John McNamara at the Exhibition Space.

Not a bad year, everything considered. It may not have brought us anything dramatically new or important, but it did present us with the work of a wide variety of good artists.

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