A gift for getting to the heart. Egon Schiele's genius was knowing where clues to individuality lay

``Genius'' is a word we should use with care. It is too easy to claim that anything merely provocative and novel in art possesses it, and it is too grand a term to automatically apply to anyone whose exceptional gifts and impassioned creativity enthrall us. Passion, novelty, and genius, after all, are not necessarily the same thing -- although genius does embody passion, and provokes and insists on the new. Even more crucial to its existence, however, are incisiveness and clarity and the ability to cause others to see, feel, think, or understand more clearly and effectively.

Modernism has had its share of men and women with that quality and has largely been shaped by them. One, however, has remained apart and has had no significant impact on that shaping -- except for a slight influence on Expressionism. The reasons are simple: He died much too young, and his style was too personal to be carried on by anyone else.

That Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was one of the outstanding geniuses of the 20th century becomes more obvious all the time -- thanks primarily, of course, to his extraordinary achievements, but also to the efforts of several art professionals, whose constant championing of his work has done much to alert the world to his importance.

Serge Sabarsky's current exhibition of Schiele's paintings at his Madison Avenue gallery here is this dealer's latest attempt to spread the word. It consists of 17 works on canvas, board, and paper, ranging from small studies executed while Schiele was still an art student to several major pictures representing him at the height of his powers.

Outstanding among the latter are the brilliant and haunting ``Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovsek,'' the intriguing ``Stein on the Danube -- Large Version,'' and one of his most impressive masterpieces, ``A Man and a Woman.'' Even the quickly dashed off oil sketch ``Bare Tree behind a Fence'' is proof of his genius, as indeed are the two pencil and gouache studies ``Holy Family'' and ``The Blind.''

Several of his very early and not yet quite original paintings already reveal the clarity and intensity of his talent, and the depth of his ability to get to the heart of his subjects before capturing them once and for all in a few lines and daubs or washes of color. By the time he was 20, he knew precisely where the essential clues to individuality lay and how best to bring them to life through paint. And during the last three or four years of his life he pushed and cajoled his skills and intuitions to the point of maximum effectiveness -- even, at times, to the point of near-infallibility.

Although his genius manifested itself most clearly through line -- both as it defined form and character and fashioned complex linear patterns throughout his compositions -- he was not insensitive to color, and occasionally used it quite brilliantly. He was particularly skilled in the use of earth colors, which he raised to the point of coloristic drama with the introduction of a variety of subtly placed reds and two or three strategic touches of bright yellow, white, green, or sky blue. The overall effect, coupled as it was with the crisp clarity of his line and the incisiveness of his characterization, was truly extraordinary when it worked -- and it did most of the time.

Only one painting in this show falls below Schiele's standards. ``Female Nude -- Back View,'' although beautifully drawn in certain areas of the lower body, comes across as rather drab and lifeless, and lacking the richness and impact we have learned to expect from this artist. One weak picture out of 17 isn't bad, however, especially when the rest are superb, and in some instances unquestionably first-rate.

At the Serge Sabarsky Gallery, 987 Madison Avenue, through July 13 -- with a probable short extension beyond that date. Latin American Art

North Americans still tend to act somewhat disdainfully toward Latin American art -- largely, I suspect, because we haven't seen much of it and also because only two or three of its outstanding figures receive the kind of hype we normally give to our best-known painters and sculptors.

Tamayo and Botero aside, we know very little about the artists of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, or any of the other countries south of our border. We may remember the Mexican muralists of a few decades ago with respect, and acknowledge having heard of Matta, Cuevas, Lam, Torres-Garcia, Portinari, and one or two others. But all in all, we seem quite content to remain ignorant of the range and depth of the art to the south of us.

The CDS Gallery here is determined to rectify this situation, not only by presenting the work of individual Latin Americans, but also by mounting group exhibitions in which several artists can be shown at one time.

Its current carefully selected presentation of Latin American art should be very helpful in alerting us to what our neighbors are doing. Of the 25 painters from 10 countries included, only 8 have any North American reputation to speak of, and yet all are good to excellent at what they do. In addition to such established, and in some cases historical, figures as Matta, Torres-Garcia, Botero, Fontana, and Lam, we are introduced to such talented newcomers as Jos'e Gamarra, Jorge Camacho and Marcelo Bonevardi, and to a larger group, including Antonio Segui, Claudio Bravo, and Francesco Toledo, who should be even better known in the United States than they already are.

This is, in all, an intriguing and very worthwhile show and, it is hoped, only a foretaste of similar exhibitions yet to come.

At the CDS Gallery, 13 East 75th Street, through June 30.

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