Decorative art

The word "deorative" has acquired new dignity in art criticism, thanks to a considerable extent to the paintings, works on paper, and writings of Robert Kushner. No one else in recent years has spent more time and thought studying the principles of the great decorative art of the distant and near past - and in applying them to his own delightfully colorful and expansive works.

These tend to be large and richly patterned and to fuse various textile materials with broadly sketched figurative elements. These include nudes, plants , groups of heads, and figure studies - all of which must compete with the flat decorative designs and patterns that appear on the various sewn-on materials he employs. The effect is often startling, with the painted and drawn images slowly emerging from what appeared at first to be a totally abstract composition.

Thirty-six of Kushner's delightfully colorful and lively paintings on paper are on view in the Whitney Museum's Lobby Gallery here. They range in time from 1972 to 1984 and include images of flowers, cupids, operatic characters, Egyptian figures, and small animals. Most were executed in acrylic combined with crayon, ink, watercolor, sequins, or collage, and all prove without a shadow of a doubt that ''decoration'' can indeed be art.

At the Whitney through Dec. 9.

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