The art of Ida Kohlmeyer - messages of friskiness and joy

I can think of no better way to open a new art season than with an exhibition of Ida Kohlmeyer's colorful and exuberant paintings and sculptures. It indicates that, come what may, at least one New York art gallery knows how to start things off with a bang.

The gallery in question is Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer, and the show represents Ms. Kohlmeyer's most recent work. Included in it are a number of her brightly hued ''abstract'' canvases, several delightfully frisky three-dimensional pieces , and a few works on paper.

The last two years have been especially good to her. They have encompassed successful one-person shows in various parts of the United States and abroad and a large 30-year retrospective organized by the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C. Also, a retrospective is currently on view at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Ala.

Recognition took a while and didn't come easily, however. She first had two obstacles to overcome: the fact that she committed herself to art relatively late in life and that, upon doing so, she fell almost immediately under the influence of two extremely powerful painters, Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko.

Rothko, in particular, had such an enormous effect on her that it took seven years to free herself from his influence. But once she was free, nothing could hold her back. By the mid-1960s she was deeply involved in work that bore only the slightest resemblance to what she had done before. And by the early 1970s she had begun to fashion the highly personal paintings for which she is best known.

These were divided by a grid system into irregularly shaped squarish areas, with each canvas consisting of four to eight rows with four to a dozen or so of these squarish areas per row. Every square had its own color and a highly simplified sign or symbol - perhaps an ''X,'' a letter of the alphabet, a fruit image, or merely a zigzag pattern. The overall effect was coloristically explosive, with dozens of brilliant hues pulsating away at maximum intensity.

Her evolution since then has been no less dramatic. In 1981 she smashed her way clear of the grid to produce increasingly lyrical images that were warmer and more informally structured than any of recent years. These also brought into focus something previously hidden beneath the surfaces of her paintings: a gently haunting quality that hints at magical incantations and primitive images and rituals.

This quality pervades the exhibition and produces a subtle aura of mystery not apparent in her earlier shows. The source of this mystery remains unidentified, as do the reasons for the increased tenderness and touches of melancholy in several of her new paintings. But no matter. The works themselves, through their colors, shapes, lines, and formal relationships, transmit all we need to know in order to grasp the truth of her perceptions and intuitions.

Not surprisingly, these somewhat mysterious and somber overtones only make her assertions that life is beautiful all the more valid and meaningful. By increasingly opening her art to the darker and more enigmatic undercurrents of existence, she succeeds in making her radiantly affirmative creative statements more convincing and effective than ever.

Kohlmeyer's ability to distill complex emotions into simple, radiantly colorful, and wondrously frisky forms is truly remarkable. Very few artists can make the creation of art seem like so much fun without also trivializing what they produce. In this she resembles Miro and Calder, who were also capable of merrily leaping about in their work with the greatest ease without any loss of authenticity, depth, or character.

That ability is rarer and much more difficult than it seems. It demands the stripping away of art's secondary characteristics, its specific subjects, references to particular human experiences, and precise depictions of people, places, and events in order to project, through the simplest possible pictorial code, the qualities and emotional resonances that mean the most to the artist. For some, the process can take a lifetime. For Kohlmeyer, it required almost two decades of ruthless probings and simplifications.

That it was worth the time and effort is obvious the moment one encounters her best works. There are several in this exhibition - and there are even more in her traveling retrospective. But even those pieces that might not quite measure up to her best are so alive, colorful, fun filled, and delightful that they put many more solemn pictures by other artists to shame. I was also pleased to note that her sculpture is moving up in quality and that at its best it is now almost as good as her painting.

At Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery, 1040 Madison Avenue, through Oct. 6.

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.