Magritte's surrealism seen gaining ground. Subtlety apparently figures in his greater critical acclaim

Of all the Surrealists, Ren'e Magritte (1898-1967) seems to be gaining the most ground as the years roll by. De Chirico and Max Ernst may still occupy the top positions in the movement's pantheon of greatness, but little glory has been added to their names these past 30 or so years. And Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy, his closest rivals, have slipped considerably since their heyday in the 1940s and '50s.

The reason for this greater critical acclaim and enhanced popularity is almost certainly the art world's increasing appreciation of the subtle, even poetic manner in which Magritte approached paradox and ambiguity in his art. Not for him the blatant sensationalism and technical virtuosity of Dali, nor the seamless otherworldliness of Tanguy. If anything, his work appears banal, even somewhat clumsy and poorly drawn at first glance.

Except for their sly inversion of reality, his canvases could be mistaken for magazine illustrations or advertisements. We look in vain in his work for the kind of painterly brilliance or intellectual complexity for which Dali and Ernst are famous, or for the profoundly provocative images of the sort De Chirico produced with such apparent ease in his younger years.

What we find instead are rather blandly painted pictures in which wonderfully odd and peculiar things occur in a totally untheatrical manner. Paintings in which:

Tiny trains come puffing through empty fireplaces.

Shattered window-glass fragments retain the images previously seen through them.

Huge rocks float serenely in the sky.

Men, fruit, and birds are transformed into giant boulders.

And a large green apple hangs suspended over a man's suit, coat, and tie.

A few of these and a number of similar images are now on display in a small but excellent exhibition of Magritte's work at Arnold Herstand & Co. here. The 21 pieces included in the show span 40 years of his career and represent most of his major themes. Several, most particularly ``La Mus'ee d'Une Nuit'' (1927), ``La Fl`eche de Zenon'' (1964), and ``L'Id'ee'' (1966), are of museum quality, and all do justice to his still-growing reputation.

At Arnold Herstand & Co., 24 West 57th Street, through Dec. 20. Marin in miniature

John Marin is another artist whose reputation has more than held its own since the artist's death in 1953 - and for good reasons. Not only was he one of America's pioneer modernists, one of the first to apply Cubist and Expressionist principles to typically American subjects and themes, he also ranks high among this country's finest watercolorists and etchers and is generally regarded as one of the most original and free-spirited of all early 20th-century American painters.

Like Magritte, Marin saw no virtue in size or fancy brushwork. He was most comfortable, in fact, working on modest-sized sheets of paper or pieces of canvas, or on tiny, compact compositions only a fraction the size of most watercolors or oils.

Kennedy Galleries here has done us all a favor by mounting an exhibition of 39 of these miniature watercolors and drawings. They range in time from 1908 to 1950, include examples from all periods of his life, and run the gamut from the very delicate ``Paris Scene'' of 1908 to the wildly expressive ``Local New Jersey'' of 1923.

No significant aspect of Marin's style or approach is excluded from this remarkably intimate and revealing mini-record of his creative ideals and passions. This is about as close to his thoughts and impulses as we can get, and if some of the images aren't as ``finished'' as we might like, they at least have the advantage of getting us close to the wellsprings of his art.

At Kennedy Galleries, 40 West 57th Street, through Dec. 15. Paintings by Marsans

Modesty and understatement also play significant roles in Spanish artist Luis Marsans's exquisite landscapes and still lifes.

There is a restrained, muted quality about them that invites comparison with the paintings of Morandi, although Marsans's images are a bit more immediate and sensuous than those of the Italian master. His line drawing of a bicycle is particularly effective - as is his watercolor of two anemones in a glass.

At the Claude Bernard Gallery, 33 East 74th Street, through Dec. 23.

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