Promising artists crop up in widely varied settings; How to spot a 'natural' painter

It takes no more than two or three seconds to determine if an artist is a ''natural'' painter or not. One can tell by the way his colors interrelate and his forms intermesh - by the way everything belongs precisely where it is, and even the most outlandish subjects and forms make perfect sense.

One can also tell by his painting's sense of wholeness and consistency, by its perfect balance between what it's about and how it was done. And, most particularly, by his painterly touch, by his ability to convince us that painting is the most natural thing in the world for him, that only while painting is he most deeply and intimately himself.

It's a unique gift that cannot be taught or faked. One either has it or he doesn't. It isn't limited to one style of painting, but can appear among the most traditional and most advanced painters alike. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Watteau, Monet, Cezanne, Braque, and Pollock were all ''naturals.''

The same can be said today of, among others, Johns, Walker, Zago, Rothenberg, La Noue, and Amenoff - to say nothing of a few youngsters just emerging. It can, in short, pop up anywhere, and in any style or form. All we can do is remain alert to it, and acknowledge it when it appears.

I knew after only one glance at the paintings of Christopher White in the Ericson Gallery here that he was a ''natural.'' It was unmistakable. Even before I knew what they were ''about,'' his paintings spoke clearly and provocatively to me, making their point entirely through paint, form, line, texture, and color.

These brightly colored and loosely brushed works were so vital and life-enhancing that I accepted them on the spot - a sure sign that a ''natural'' had painted them. Only after I had begun to examine them more closely did I discover that they were dramatically abstracted and passionately executed landscape paintings.

Once identified as such, however, there could be no doubt as to what they were. They were landscapes, but of a kind that put the emphasis on the artist's enthusiastic and moving response to nature, not on a flat and meticulous description of its details.

White's paintings are remarkably vibrant. They cannot wait to tell us how exciting and good life is - or how deeply moving it can be. They leap out at us with the enthusiasm of a puppy welcoming us home, or a child who's waited all day to tell us a secret. White is so full of life, color, and enthusiasm, and has such a deeply ingrained passion for paint, that he cannot waste time on lengthy explanations. He must communicate what lies within him as quickly as he can, and with as much lyrical painterliness as he can muster.

He's fortunate that he's found the appropiate style by which to do so. But then, he's a dyed-in-the-wool painter, and such a person will do everything in his power to distill and to transmit precisely what he sees, fears, or dreams about. He must do so regardless of price or public apathy - or put his paints and brushes away.

White is such an artist. His may not be the biggest talent around, but it is a true and very lively one.

After its June 25 closing at the Ericson, 23 East 74th Street, this small but excellent exhibition will travel to the Huntington Galleries, Huntington, W.Va. (July 3-Aug. 7), and then to the Stifel Fine Arts Center, Wheeling, W.Va. (Aug. 10-31). The Ericson Gallery

When I dropped by the Ericson Gallery to see the Christopher White show, I found its owner-director, Takis Efstathiou, studying some slides left behind by one artist, and carrying on a conversation with another over the phone. Both artists wanted to exhibit at the Ericson, but they will not, unfortunately, be able to. Neither was good enough.

Even good artists have a hard time making the grade at this gallery, mainly because of limited space and the large number of talented painters eager to show there now that it has achieved modest but solid recognition in the art world. Word has gotten out that Mr. Efstathiou is interested in bright new talent and that, discriminating as he may be, he also has the ability to look at new work with an unprejudiced eye.

The response has been predictable and continuing. He's had to say ''no'' to large numbers of artists. Even with small to tiny works covering almost every inch of his office walls, he cannot show more than a small fraction of even the excellent work submitted to him. And the gallery itself is too small to accommodate more than one full show at a time.

I first met Mr. Efstathiou toward the end of 1977, when he was working for another gallery and trying to get up enough nerve to strike off on his own. He did so a few months later. He rented space at his present location, named his new gallery after his son, and opened to the public with only a very general idea of the direction he would take as a dealer. The art he handled would be ''modern,'' of that he was certain, but beyond that he wasn't too clear.

His entry into the art world was casual and largely unannounced. Things moved slowly at first. The gallery's small size and its location just a little off Madison Avenue didn't help. But word of mouth soon spread the news of its presence, and within the year the Ericson had a small but faithful following.

It also began to attract a few very promising artists, most of whom were still a bit wet behind the ears and needed encouragement and exposure for their art. Mr. Efstathiou offered both - and began to sell some of their work as well.

The gallery's commitment to modernism's more enthusiastic and youthful qualities soon became well known. In February of 1980 it held its first important show organized (or ''curated'') by an outside authority. ''Painting as Percept'' included the work of 12 highly talented and innovative younger artists , drawing attention to the fact that the Ericson was rapidly becoming one of the very few galleries north of SoHo and 57th Street where the newer and more starkly painterly images just emerging could be seen.

By the beginning of 1981, the Ericson was ''on the map'' as a gallery and was on the way up. Artists liked it because of its informal atmosphere and its greater commitment to art than to commerce. Art lovers enjoyed stopping in because there was always something new and the prices for the art on view were still within reach. Art professionals liked to drop in to look and to gossip.

I myself like the gallery because it is open to new ideas and has retained its integrity even through some difficult times. It is still as open and informal as when it first began, and still the sort of place where newcomers and established artists are treated equally.

Compared with some of the really ''major'' galleries, the Ericson may not seem impressive. But in the ways that really count in art, it is an exceptional gallery.

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