Diebenkorn's quiet consistency puts him above art's changing tides

Very few careers in art can survive a dramatic shift in fashion, and even fewer can rise in stature after such a switch. It takes a particularly powerful talent such as Picasso's, or an extremely logical formal vision such as Mondrian's, to withstand the challenges put forward every few years by a new generation of profoundly ambitious artists.

Recent American art has had one very dramatic example, and one slightly less dramatic, of such a career. Frank Stella's has survived every challenge, and not only remained intact, but actually grown in importance. And Richard Diebenkorn's , despite several attempts in recent years to discredit his art as outdated and no longer relevant, continues to command the respect of most serious critics, curators, and collectors.

Diebenkorn has managed this by quiet growth and a remarkably consistent creative attitude. He has survived two changes in his own style (from abstraction to representational painting, and then back again to abstraction), and the onslaught of Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Photo-Realism, and today's Neo-Expressionism. Throughout, the standards and ideals that shape his work have remained high and uncompromising.

The latest chapter in his career's unfolding is currently on view at M. Knoedler & Co. here. It consists of numerous moderate-size works on paper that continue the expansive spatial explorations that helped make his Ocean Park series so effective, but that were interrupted by his recent explorations of a slightly more relaxed and opulent imagery.

These paintings represent Diebenkorn at his most lean, tough, and clearly motivated. Very little of the elegance that characterized his 1982 New York show remains, and what little does still exist has been channeled into more purely structural directions.

That's all to the good, however. For all its no-nonsense aura and lack of elegance and polish, this exhibition is first rate, and an excellent demonstration of the kind of ruthless formal probing a major artist must pursue even while at the height of his career. The show should be of particular interest to Diebenkorn's fellow artists and to anyone interested in the kind of behind-the-scenes creative activities that clarify issues and ideas, and that establish the premises for more final and monumental performances. In that respect, viewing this exhibition is somewhat like watching a champion boxer train for a major fight. To anyone in the know, studying these rather rough-looking but extremely sophisticated gouache, crayon, and acrylic (and occasionally collage) works on paper will be a highly satisfying experience. And I suspect anyone not particularly interested in modernism's theories or ideals will still find them handsome and intriguing. At M. Knoedler & Co., 19 East 70th Street, through May 31. Folk artist John Kane

Primitive or folk painters of quality are much rarer than one would imagine. For every Henri Rousseau, Camille Bombois, or Grandma Moses, there have been literally hundreds of others who have produced one or two charming works, but whose overall production has been repetitious, and lacking in style or formal interest.

The reasons are obvious. Most primitive pictures succeed because of their subject matter or unintentionially humorous style of drawing or painting. Very few of those who attempt such work have any interest in or talent for the formal qualities art demands. Their interest ends with the subject, and that's that. When that's effective, the picture works - at least on one level. When the subject isn't effective, there is nothing else to sustain it as art.

John Kane (1860-1934), the first contemporary American folk artist to win recognition in his own lifetime, was a major exception. Kane, a poor laborer who emigrated to the United States from Scotland at the age of 19, first made headlines in 1927 when one of his paintings was included in that year's prestigious International Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.

His success surprised everyone, but from that point on, his reputation was made. He exhibited not only in future Carnegie ''Annuals,'' but in shows sponsored by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. Collectors sought him out, and several of his paintings ended up in major American museums.

A comprehensive survey of Kane's achievements has been mounted by the Galerie St. Etienne here. It consists of 67 works, including several of his major oils, a number of his preliminary drawings, and a handful of rough sketches. Also scattered throughout the exhibition are photographs depicting some of the locations he painted. The last-named are of particular interest, as they pinpoint the manner in which Kane both respected and modified whatever landscape lay before him. Although a stickler for detail and accuracy, he was not above transposing elements or merging several views of a scene to achieve greater pictorial effectiveness.

It is obvious from this exhibition that Kane had an excellent sense of pattern and design, that he could capture atmosphere and the various effects of light with considerable sensitivity and precision, and that he carefully orchestrated the components of his compositions.

Particularly impressive are his wonderfully frisky and lighthearted ''Scotch Day at Kennywood'' (1933), the serene and elegant ''Panther Hollow'' (1930-31), and the meticulously detailed and beautifully composed ''Crossing the Junction'' (1933-34).

This is, in all, a very worthwhile exhibition. Walking around it, I was struck by how remarkably consistent Kane was, especially in his various studies of Pittsburgh and the landscapes surrounding that city. It is also true, however , that when it came to other subjects - and I'm thinking here in particular of his portrait of himself and his wife - the result was apt to be a bit more ordinary.

But that's nit-picking. The important fact is that John Kane was an artist, and that he deserves to rank (together with Grandma Moses, Horace Pippin, and Morris Hirshfield) as one of America's four major folk artists of this century.

At the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, through May 25. A large number of Kane's paintings and drawings, however, will remain on view during this gallery's summer show beginning June 5.

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