A place for today's most challenging art

The 1983-84 New York art season started out slowly after Labor Day, but then accelerated rapidly. By the time October was under way, enough good art could be seen along 57th Street and Madison Avenue to satisfy most art lovers. And enough new galleries had opened or had moved to better locations to considerably alter the appearance of New York's gallery world.

SoHo, in particular, was booming. For the first time in several years, it seemed more exciting and venturesome, more open to genuine accomplishment than was the case uptown. Not only did such a contemporary master as James Rosenquist score more heavily than ever before in his exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery (and prove thereby that he is the best ex-pop artist around), but newer and less-established artists also did extremely well.

The biggest cause for celebration, however, was the move by the New Museum of Contemporary Art to its permanent new quarters at 583 Broadway, and the fact that SoHo will now be able to benefit from this museum's always fascinating - if also often controversial - exhibitions of the most up-to-date art.

The New Museum hasn't had an easy time. It was founded in 1977 by Marcia Tucker to provide a forum for the work of living artists and the ideas and issues generated by their work. She was particularly concerned that emerging artists who had received little or no public exposure or critical acclaim be given the opportunity to exhibit, and that special emphasis be placed on showing the very latest art while it was still in its formative state.

The museum began in a small office and without exhibition space, but found temporary quarters six months later at the New School for Social Research. It was there that the museum held its ever-more-widely acclaimed exhibitions. But space was limited, and certain exhibition ideas had to be held in abeyance until larger quarters could be found.

It took two years, but the museum finally found them in the landmark Astor Building in SoHo. Its new home includes sufficient space for everything from exhibitions to lectures and screenings, with enough left over for research, workroom, office, and archival activities.

Best of all, the museum can now more fully realize its goal to present art as a dynamic and evolving expression of a living and fluctuating culture. And to do so within the most carefully prepared critical, historical, and sociological exhibition contexts.

To this end, it will continue its exhibition program of thematic shows, solo retrospectives for artists in mid-career, and special shows organized by guest curators and independent artists' groups. It will also mount ''window'' projects visible from the street, and set aside space where curators can present recent work brought directly from artists' studios.

The museum opened its new home with a bang. Its inaugural exhibition, a four-part survey of contemporary art entitled ''Language, Drama, Source, and Vision,'' was intended to highlight some of the critical issues that have characterized art these past 10 years. Although it does a good job overall, it is certain to raise more than a few eyebrows, send some of our more conservative art lovers into a rage, and cause others to claim that most of the works on view aren't really art at all.

At first glance, one may be tempted to agree. I know I disliked some of the pieces intensely and couldn't take others seriously the first time around. But the majority hold up rather well, and the show as a whole makes its point clearly and intelligently.

The exhibition traces significant changes in the attitude, intent, and style of contemporary painting, sculpture, photography, video, and large-scale installations by focusing on four major themes.

The ''Language'' section demonstrates the use of language in street works, narratives, anecdotes, puns, and cliches. ''Drama'' investigates the influence of theater as a mode of presentation, narrative, or dramatic event. ''Source'' reveals the importance of mass culture as a source of imagery and method and includes television, newspapers, advertising, telephones, and photography. And ''Vision'' explores the range of abstract or nonobjective modes of working.

Sixty-eight artists are included, many with more than one work. Among them are such well-known figures as Alfred Jensen, William T. Wiley, Al Held, Brice Marden, Joel Shapiro, Ed Ruscha, Elizabeth Murray, Keith Haring, William Wegman, and Dorothea Rockburne - and such relative unknowns as Mr. Apology, Irv Tepper, Al Souza, and Steve Miller.

I recommend this exhibition, not so much for its art as for its accounting of much of what has been happening in art these past few years. Those not familiar with it will find some of this recent art incredibly clumsy and blatant. Indeed, much of it does leave one feeling one is in the presence of children or immature adults who have just discovered, and insist on telling us, that 2 and 2 are 4, that it is not nice to kill, and that one needs money to survive.

It is difficult at first to take it all seriously, especially since the work itself generally lacks technical sophistication, is purposely crude and often poorly drawn, and projects a sophomoric level of wit.

And yet there is more to it than that. Some of the art here is extemely clever and pointed, and some of it is well drawn and well painted. It may flaunt vulgarity, or use trite images to make a point about the vulgar and the trite. It may be blatant to remind us of simple truths, or crudely stilted to underscore the artificiality of some aspects of our culture. But, whatever, at its best it is conceived and executed with serious intentions in mind.

It exists not to decorate walls nor to hang elegantly in museums, but to poke , probe, and point - to instigate change and to indicate improvements. It certainly is true, at the same time, that some of it is merely trivial and trite and not worth taking seriously.

Then again, it could also be true that some of this work may reflect the training given many of our younger artists. It may be that no matter how much they want to draw representationally, they cannot, having been taught by teachers who themselves were taught that representational art was dead once and for all. Perhaps what we are seeing here is the result of 35 years of art teaching that focused almost exclusively on splashing paint, bending neon tubing , and covering canvases with flat paint. Perhaps. I really don't know. But it is at least worth thinking about.

At any rate, this is an intriguing and valuable exhibition. It will remain on view at the New Museum, 583 Broadway, through Nov. 27.

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