There's no getting around it: The recently opened IBM Gallery of Science and Art, on Madison Avenue at 56th Street, has already established itself as one of the prime cultural institutions of midtown Manhattan. It's convenient to both business people and shoppers, provides viewers with comfortable, beautifully designed galleries, mounts several excellent exhibitions a year, and charges no admission.
As if to nail down its reputation once and for all, it has just opened what will undoubtedly prove to be New York's outstanding gallery show of the summer. At least, there is nothing else already on view or scheduled for this month or next that can match ``18th-20th Century European and American Painting and Sculpture,'' either in scope or in quality. Its 68 paintings and sculptures, on loan from the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, are impressive, and in some instances first rate. And the breadth of the selection is such that the viewer is apt to think he or she has wandered into a museum rather than a corporate gallery.
The museum atmosphere is set by a cluster of 18th- and early-19th-century paintings, most particularly John Constable's amazingly warm and lifelike portrait of ``Mrs. Edwards'' (if only all landscapists could paint figures as well!) and Eug`ene Delacroix's ``Arabs Traveling,'' and is thoroughly locked into place by Edouard Manet's superb ``Le Repos,'' the second of the many paintings that artist executed of Berthe Morisot.
The latter picture, all by itself, is worth the trip to this gallery. Few artists have ever produced so brilliant a study of a young woman - and with such extraordinary economy of means. This is painting at its best, simplest, and most authoritative.
Genius and underplayed technical performance are also very evident in ``La Savoisienne,'' Edgar Degas's bold study of a young peasant girl painted with all the exquisite balance of line, tone, and color that was that artist's special trademark. A comparison of this work's crisp linearism with Manet's much more painterly approach in ``Le Repos,'' and Claude Monet's Impressionist canvas ``Le Bassin d'Argenteuil'' hanging nearby (to say nothing of Paul C'ezanne's near-abstract ``On a River Bank''), should convince even the most hardened skeptic of how rich and varied the early French modernists were.
Of course, their American contemporaries didn't do too badly, either. Witness John Singer Sargent's virtuoso performance in ``A Boating Party,'' and his extraordinary portrait of ``Senor Manuel Garc'ia.'' Painted only 16 years apart, these two works hardly appear to be the product of the same hand or creative vision.
In ``On a Lee Shore,'' Winslow Homer once again proves that, at his best, he could hold his own with all but the greatest of his European contemporaries. Painted toward the end of his life, and in a manner that indicates just how aware Homer the Maine recluse was of European modernism, this superb study of the sea makes one wonder at the critical intelligence of those writers on art during the 1930s and '40s who came close to dismissing Homer as a gifted but ``mere'' illustrator.
And much the same wonder must be directed at those who consistently underrate George Bellows's talents and accomplishments. ``Rain on the River,'' which was painted in 1908 when he was only 26, is a brilliant demonstration of what a true painter can do with daubs, smears, dashes, and heavy brushloads of juicy paint. Seen as a work of pure representation, it would beautifully hold its own in the company of whichever early 20th-century American realists one might name. And viewed as pure energy distilled into and projected through paint, it comes across as powerfully as almost anything produced by the early European Expressionists.
For proof, the viewer need only walk a few yards to where Oskar Kokoschka's remarkable ``Portrait of Franz Hauer'' dominates its wall. Here again, we see youth demonstrating its power and originality - only this time with a much more calculated use of distortion for greater psychological effect.
Also of particular interest are Horace Pippin's ``Quaker Mother and Child,'' a modest but exceptionally sensitive and convincing work by America's premier black ``naive'' painter; and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's ``Honfleur, The Old Harbor.''
Also, Auguste Rodin's bronze ``Balzac''; Thomas Cole's dramatic ``Landscape with Tree Trunks;'' John Singleton Copley's ``Rebecca Boylston Gill''; Jacques Villon's amazingly inventive ``Head of a Woman''; and Henri Matisse's ``The Green Pumpkin.''
On the other hand, the paintings by Renoir, Picasso, and Pollock fall considerably below their usual standards. Picasso's ``Woman Reading a Book,'' for instance, while a competent enough Cubist work, cannot compare with the two Cubist paintings by the same artist currently on view in the Prague Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.
In all, this is remarkable collection of minor and near-major masterpieces. It was curated by Daniel Rosenfeld of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, and will remain on view at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art through Sept. 10.
Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.