STILL-LIFE painting has a long tradition. Groupings of small household or workshop objects, fruit, and plants can be found in the art of most ancient or distant cultures. Although of only minor pictorial importance, they indicate that artists of all ages have been drawn to the depiction of familiar but otherwise unimportant material things.
The closer we come to our own century, however, the more prominent and independent still-life painting becomes. Early 15th- and 16th-century Flemish and German artists often included exquisite renderings of fruit and flowers or arrangements of household utensils in their religious or allegorical works. The 17th-century Dutch went one step further and painted pictures entirely filled with good things to look at or to eat. And within a century after that, still-life painting in Europe had become a recognized and very separate form of art.
During those years, such artists as Memling, Holbein, Durer, Vermeer, and Chardin paid particular attention to the depiction of inanimate objects. Chardin , in fact, was one of the first to bring nobility to what had been considered a lesser art form.
It wasn't until Cezanne gave still-life painting his full attention, however, that it really began to play a dominant role in art. Thanks to him, carefully composed pictures of apples, onions, crockery, tablecloths, and bottles moved center-stage alongside figure compositions, landscapes, and portraits. And what Cezanne had dignified, the Cubists pushed even further to produce strangely disjointed but oddly effective two-dimensional versions of what they had grouped together on a tabletop or assembled on a chair.
Still life, in short, had come of age. Its impersonal nature and the fact that the artist could arrange whatever objects he or she wanted to include at leisure made it a convenient mode for those who followed modernism's precepts that a picture's subject was of less importance than the careful orchestration of its parts. For painters interested primarily in how and not in what they painted, a selection of easy-to-move-about utensils, vegetables, glasses, and fruit was as good a subject as any other.
The 20th century, as a result, has produced large numbers of still lifes representing the full range of modernism's formal values and ideals. It has also given us a handful that reflect few of those ideals and that stand independently as rare pictorial statements for their time and place.
The names of Giorgio Morandi, Ivan Albright, Charles Demuth, and Charles Sheeler spring to mind here, as do those of Graham Sutherland and Jane Frielicher. Each of these artists has made a significant contribution to still-life painting, and most have done so with very little reference to the art of the past. Morandi's subtly painted canvases, in particular, stand apart from similar work done either in this or in earlier centuries. And Albright's idiosyncratic and richly detailed paintings, which utilize inanimate objects to evoke allegorical allusions, have hardly any precedent in the history of art.
To date, the '80s have seen very little work in this genre. That should not be surprising, however, considering how obsessively today's painting concerns itself with subjective experience and provocative imagery. Compared with the depiction of primal forces and primeval events in styles that are both passionate and improvisational, the careful and precise delineation of fruit and other objects on a table is just too dull - or worse still, too ''objective'' an experience.
It is all the more interesting, therefore, to note the kinds of still lifes that are being produced today. In addition to the usual number of straight renderings intended to demonstrate the artist's skill at making pictures ''true to life'' and studies focusing primarily on structure and form, there have been only a few paintings that reflect a genuine concern for both the tradition and the challenges of this form of art.
Don Gray's ''Red Snapper, Cezanne and Van Gogh'' is one of these. It is very large, boldly and sumptuously painted, and it commands the viewer's attention in an altogether forthright manner. It is also carefully and shrewdly composed, and it takes full advantage of each object's shape, volume, texture, and color to build a thoroughly monumental image in the grand tradition of still-life painting.
This is the kind of picture earlier artists produced to establish their right to be called ''master.'' It is a diploma piece that proves this painter's worth, and that pays tribute to two past masters of still life, Cezanne and Van Gogh, whose paintings can be seen in the open book at the center of the composition.
It is also a statement directed at today's art world and its foibles and trivialities by a man who is not only a painter but a writer, an art critic, and a producer of a television program on art as well. As such, it has a point to make about artistic quality, integrity, and truth, and it makes it directly and well - by example rather than by painterly polemics or exhortation.