Reflections in eccentric eyes

Eccentricity, although not always honored, has played a significant role in art history. It has given us Bosch's disturbing but always fascinating glimpses into a fanciful hell; Goya's moving depictions of a world gone mad; Ensor's frenetic exposures of human foibles; Bresdin's labyrinthian forests and landscapes; and Ernst's and Dali's Surrealist nightmares. It has also seasoned the work of Redon, Munch, Tanguy, Klee, and Bacon, and has contributed greatly to the success of today's Neo-Expressionists. American art has also had its share of eccentrics, from Albert Ryder to Joseph Cornell and Red Grooms. No one, however, can more justifiably be described as eccentric than Ivan Albright (1897-1983), both because of his profoundly subjective and melancholy themes and his obsessively detailed technique.

Although best known for his startling portrait of Dorian Gray in the 1944 motion picture based on Oscar Wilde's story, he also made something of a splash in the 1950s when Sartre declared his haunting picture of an elaborately carved door, ``That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do,'' the only great painting America had produced to date.

Relatively few people are aware, however, that he was also a distinguished printmaker and that his lithographs, which possess a richness of tone and detail that sets them dramatically apart from anything else done at the time, rank among the most highly regarded American prints of the 1930-55 period.

An important exhibition of Albright's graphic works has been assembled by Sylvan Cole and Martin Sumers at the former's gallery here. Included are such extraordinary lithographic images as ``Into the World Came a Soul Called Ida,'' ``Self Portrait at 55 Division Street,'' and ``Show Case Doll''; several other masterly prints in that medium; and 22 etchings and drypoints. Among the last-named are several virtuoso performances of considerable interest, a few charming studies after Rembrandt, and two excellent landscapes -- not a bad record for a man who took up etching in 1969, at the age of 72.

At the Sylvan Cole Gallery, 101 West 57th Street, through Feb. 15. James McGarrell

James McGarrell must also be counted among America's best and most interesting painters for whom the term ``eccentric'' particularly applies. Convincing proof can be found in his current show at the Allan Frumkin Gallery here. It consists of two huge triptychs, several good-sized paintings, and a number of monotypes. All are representational in approach, allegorical in theme, and extravagantly detailed in execution, and all use color in a generous and unprejudiced manner.

They could, at first glance, be taken for purely narrative works, for they present the same complex figurative and environmental faade we have come to expect in paintings of that sort. A second look, however, would indicate otherwise. In place of clear-cut action or a logical story line such as we might find in the work of Jack Beal or Robert Birmelin, we are presented with a number of subtle enigmas and intriguing ambiguities.

We never quite discover what is going on in a McGarrell painting. There are clues, but there are also many fascinating objects and passages that divert our attention and cause us to linger on matters that may or may not have anything to do with the picture's major ideas. McGarrell's skill is such, however, that we are always drawn back to the work's central theme, remaining intrigued and engaged long after the novelty and the initial impact of the painting have worn off.

Only a powerful painter can hold our attention in this fashion, can impress us with the integrity of so enigmatic a vision, and can orchestrate so many apparently contradictory elements into harmonious -- if extraordinarily dense -- composition. But then, McGarrell is just such a painter. His intention, it appears, is twofold: to fashion a pictorial universe that approximates his own complex perception of reality, with all its ambiguities and incongruities, and to do so in a manner that allows him the opportunity to do what he most enjoys doing and does best.

His paintings and work on paper can, as a result, be viewed either as somewhat imprecise allegories whose ``meanings'' will never be fully revealed, or as extravagant pictorial entertainments, as ravishing feasts for the eye. Both approaches are valid, but either one without the other does the artist an injustice and severely curtails our understanding and appreciation of what he has produced. Art such as his demands to be approached on several levels, and with varying degrees of sophistication. If it is not, the viewer will fail to experience it in all its depth, detail, and diversity. At the Allan Frumkin Gallery, 50 West 57 Street, through March 1.

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