Where photography and abstraction merge. In an era when fragmentation in art is the order of the day, Dutch artist Jan Dibbets fuses the two most antithetical of all 20th-century forms - photography and abstraction - in startlingly original ways.

OVER the years, the Dutch have produced more than their share of great artists, as well as many excellent painters of only marginally lower rank. They've given us Vermeer and Rembrandt, and of course, Van Gogh and Mondrian. And as if that weren't enough, they've recently come up with a a group of unusually talented younger Dutch painters and sculptors who have significantly enriched the cultural climate of the 1970s and '80s. One of the best known of these is Jan Dibbets, a creator of multiple images of landscape and architectural subjects that begin as photographs but are gradually transformed, with the help of watercolor, pencil, and ink, into extraordinarily sophisticated design and photo montages.

Put that way, they may not sound like much. In actuality, however, especially if seen in as ideal a setting as his current mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum here, they prove to be both stunning works of art and significant pictorial statements that integrate and illuminate crucial aspects of 20th-century art that were previously assumed to be irreconcilable.

This traveling retrospective, in fact, which was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in conjunction with the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, will undoubtedly underscore what many art professionals already believe: that Jan Dibbets is one of the finest artists to have emerged on the international scene in the past 20 years.

His work combines the best of photography, modern design, and modernist image reduction.

It takes full advantage of lessons learned from Mondrian, Vermeer, Cubism, from architectural, engineering, and perspective drawings, and from elements of Conceptual and Earth Art. And, last but not least, it moves increasingly into areas only recently made accessible to science and art by space-probing satellites.

Miraculously, however, it all comes together with the kind of thematic and formal logic that Mondrian - and possibly even Vermeer - would have admired.

Like almost everyone else, of course, Dibbets had to work his way up to his present position.

He began, in 1959, at the age of 18, by studying to be both an art teacher and a painter, first in Holland and then in Antwerp and London. In 1967, the year he moved to Amsterdam, which would shortly become his permanent home, he made the first of his Perspective Corrections. These were photographic images of lawns and other flat areas in which the receding effects of optical perspective were countered by arbitrarily imposed geometric forms.

These were followed, during the early to mid-1970s, by sets of serial photographs so arranged as to fashion panoramic sea and landscape views suggestive of both the passage of time and endless space.

And these, in turn, led to his current and most spectacular productions to date: large ``paintings'' consisting of sliced segments of architectural photographs. These are joined together and augmented by painted and drawn design elements to fashion circular forms representing fanciful 360-degree views of the upper portions and ceilings of Gothic, Baroque, and Neo-Classical building interiors as seen from below.

Here again, this may not sound like much. And yet in Dibbets's hands these crisp, exquisitely designed, and startlingly original composite images prove to be stunning.

No matter how one approaches them - as visual paradoxes that question the nature of human perception, as innovative abstractions, as playful interpretations of historical architecture, or as challenging conceptual pieces - they more than hold their own, not only on the walls of the Guggenheim, but in the company of modernism's outstanding masters as well.

Where else, after all, can one find photography and abstraction, the two most antithetical of all 20th-century art forms, coexisting so harmoniously?

And where else can such disparate realities as Baroque architecture, conceptual theory, kaleidoscopic imagery, and modernist design principles fuse so seamlessly and holistically in works that appear at once both beautifully simple and intriguingly complex?

Nowhere, I submit - especially now in the late 1980s when fragmentation and diversification are more the order of the day in art than integration is.

But there's much more to these works than that. The best of them - and four of the finest dominate the central wall of the Guggenheim's small rotunda gallery - radiate with the kind of emotional depth, formal ``perfection'' (one is tempted to say ``inevitability''), and subtle but penetrating references to vital contemporary cultural ideas and attitudes one finds only in the most significant art of any generation.

Combine all that with their remarkable integrative qualities and their technical brilliance, and one ends up with art superior to that produced by all but a very small handful of his contemporaries.

After its closing at the Guggenheim on Nov. 1, this first-rate exhibition travels to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (Jan. 17-March 27, 1988).

Other stops on the American part of the tour include the Detroit Institute of Arts (April 24-June 19, 1988) and the Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla. (July 30-Oct. 2, 1988).

Finally, the international exhibition moves to Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands (Nov. 6, 1988-Jan. 1, 1989).

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