Some artists create in order to clarify and simplify their relationship with reality, others to give voice to reality's complexities and ambiguities. Thus Brancusi and Mondrian sought to give form to what they believed were life's essentials, whereas Beckmann and Pollock were more intent on embodying and articulating life's densities and contradictions.
Both approaches have their merits and have made major contributions to art. We of the 20th century have seen several extreme examples of both, and have, in fact, taken great delight in swinging back and forth between these extremes whenever things became dull.
The pendulum has once again swung to the side of complexity and ambiguity. Today's art world is enthralled by work that poses ''big,'' impossible-to-answer questions, that bites off more than it can chew, and that stresses primal urges, fear, and ecstasies.
Central to this kind of art, and very much its chief American prophet, is Julian Schnabel. Although only 32 years old and all but unknown four years ago, Mr. Schnabel has established himself as the most controversial, actively promoted, and sought-after painter of recent years.
That he is fast becoming one of the most effective as well is clearly established in his current exhibition at the Pace Gallery here. The show is powerful, brash, and flawed, but it proves without a shadow of a doubt that Schnabel has a provocative talent - and that he will be a force to be reckoned with for a long time to come.
Schnabel believes in bigness - both in theme and in scale. He is not afraid to tackle subjects that deal with complex metaphysical, moral, social, or psychological issues, and to do so in works that average 9 by 10 feet and fairly often are over 20 feet in width.
Coupled with bigness is stridency. Schnabel goes all out for maximum effect, and ''scores'' frequently enough to make it pay off. His use of broken crockery, animal hides, antler horns, and black velvet - either pasted onto the surface of his pictures or serving as the surface itself - helped make him famous. And his slashing, no-holds-barred technique effectively reinforces his reputation as a totally committed painter.
The fascinating thing is that it is beginning to work. His 1984, 10 -foot-square ''Vita,'' which depicts a female crucifixion figure set against a field of broken dishes, is one of the most impressive images this decade has produced to date. And much the same must be said of ''Cookie's Doll,'' ''Nicknames of Maitre d's'' (which is painted on black velvet), ''Ethnic Types No. 15 and No. 72,'' and ''King of the Woods.'' These works may not be entirely resolved - either formally or thematically - and may occasionally depend too heavily on sensational effects, but they still come across as major efforts, as serious attempts to create art on a level to which very few painters today can even aspire.
In this, Schnabel's current work reminds one of what the German Expressionists and Rouault, Beckmann, Bacon, Benton, Orozco, Pollock, and Still produced when they first began to paint in the styles that made them famous. In every case there was excess, overzealousness, a touch of pomposity, and some truly bad painting. But that is the nature of the type of creative personality that takes risks, that ventures beyond the proprieties and the neat solutions of more timid folk.
There is no way of knowing how important an artist Schnabel will become. Were his career to end tomorrow, he would probably be remembered as an extremely interesting and promising painter of heroic visions, vast contradictions, considerable power, and questionable taste. His art may resemble an overstuffed suitcase desperately in need of being closed, but at least it includes something of substance - and Schnabel does keep giving it his best.
At the Pace Gallery, 32 East 57th Street, throught Dec. 1.
William Dole exhibition
There is something both Edwardian and modern about William Dole's modest and deceptively fragile-looking collages. Edwardian because of their cool, rather restrained elegance, and modern because they are abstract.
It is a special kind of abstraction, however, one that offers comments and underscores many points through an exquisite juxtaposition of isolated words and phrases and fragments of handwriting with snippets of colored paper, watercolor washes, newspaper clippings, and tinted pieces of torn paper.
What's more, it pays very special attention to the meaning of the words and phrases that appear in odd and intriguing combinations throughout the compositions, and it doesn't use them merely for purposes of shock or provocation.
An excellent sampling of Dole's collages is currently on view at the Staempfli Gallery here. Included are several large - by his standards - pieces that achieve a subtle monumentality, and a few very small pictures that can best be appreciated if held in the hand.
All his works, in fact, are at their best when viewed at close range. There are too many half-hidden details and delicate nuances to be picked up from a distance. And a great deal of the textural richness of his surfaces cannot be appreciated from more than three or four feet away.
There is an intimacy about these collages that is quite remarkable. We want to be close in order to savor them and to be able to ''read'' what they have to offer. Some make their point quickly, others demand time, patience, and some imagination.
At the Staempfli Gallery, 47 East 77th Street, through Dec. 1.