The Fernand L'eger exhibition at the Acquavella Galleries here will undoubtedly prove to be one of the outstanding gallery shows of the 1987-88 season. Not only is it the largest and best exhibition of this French artist's work to hit New York in 20 years, its formal message, its insistence that art is as much a matter of structure as of sensibility, of discipline as of freedom, is so clear and concise that it cannot help having a positive effect on today's confused and often disoriented gallery world. L'eger, of course, has always been acknowledged as one of modernism's outstanding figures, primarily because he developed his own highly effective brand of Cubism, but also because he then went on to produce some of the most impressive monumental canvases of the mid-20th century.
Even so, exhibitions of his work have been rare and limited in scope, especially in America, where he's generally been viewed as an important but not particularly interesting or rewarding painter. The few shows that have been mounted over the past 20 or so years have tended to focus exclusively on one or another aspect of his art, and have failed, therefore, to give an adequate accounting of the full range and depth of his accomplishments.
That criticism most assuredly doesn't apply to this retrospective. Its 50 oils, executed between 1905 and 1955, and borrowed from major public and private collections both here and abroad, include outstanding examples from every one of L'eger's important periods. All are reproduced in color in the exhibition catalog and are discussed by Jack Flam.
The show is chronologically arranged. We first encounter the artist in 1905 as the 24-year-old painter of ``Village Corse au Couchant,'' a simplified but still frankly Post-Impressionistic work, move on with him to his brilliantly innovative Cubistic composition, ``Le Compotier'' of 1909, and then find ourselves in front of one superb early L'eger after another in a room that contains more prime examples of his 1910-20 period than we've ever seen in one place.
The sight is truly impressive, even for one who has never counted L'eger among his favorites. It isn't often one sees so much structural subtlety and sophistication, so many varied and imaginative resolutions of complex formal issues. The works in this one room alone would justify L'eger's inclusion among the major early modernists and would place him high on the list of this century's most innovative formalists.
Fortunately, he was to produce a great deal more during the remaining 35 years of his life. As we move to the second gallery, and then on to the third and fourth, we see L'eger's typical tubular human figures and solidly patterned compositional devices slowly beginning to emerge from, and then gradually to replace, the more purely abstract formats of his earlier works. This evolutionary process is both fascinating and instructive to follow, for it permits us to watch one of the most distinctive of 20th-century styles take shape and direction and then ultimately achieve its final form in such monumental canvases as ``La Grande Julie'' of 1945 and ``La Grande Parade'' of 1952.
Not everything, of course, is of equal quality. The further we get from his early work, the more likely we are to find a certain heavy-handedness creeping into his compositions. Masterpieces such as ``Esquisse pour La Lecture'' (1924) and ``Composition'' (1923-27) may predominate, but it would be unwise to ignore the fact that a painting such as ``L'Enchanteresse de Oiseaux'' (1942) is somewhat less successful, and that ``Les Campeurs'' (1954) is actually close to being a failure.
Overall, however, this exhibition is first rate. It will remain on view at Acquavella Galleries, 18 East 79th Street, through Dec. 12.