CERTAINLY German artists have a reputation as tortured intellectuals who wear a lot of black. But there are two sides to every coin, and the present exhibition ``BiNATIONALE: German Art of the Late '80s'' gives its visitors both - German artists at their most idiosyncratic and bizarre, as well as at their most approachable.

The ``BiNATIONALE'' is an exchange program of sorts. German art hangs here in the States, shared between Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts (through Jan. 29). Meanwhile, American art has just recently completed a sojourn in D"usseldorf.

The shows are composed of work created since 1985. In terms of organizing major exhibits, this is practically the newest of the new.

So it's an interesting look at what art is saying about itself, what Germany is saying about itself, and (if you saw both parts) what America is saying about itself.

On the one hand, Germany continues to speak in difficult colors and shapes. On the other hand, these treatments do work well as vehicles for eloquent philosophizing.

An enormous triptych called ``Rusty Sky,'' by Werner B"uttner, is at first glance a non-representational work. With study, another picture emerges. The ochers and dark browns in the painting are an abstract detail from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco of God creating man.

Together, the three parts take up an entire wall, and the composition focuses on the most poignant part of the creation scene - the two extended forefingers that do not quite touch.

As a gesture, it packs quite a punch - restating Michelangelo in a way as brash as Franz Klein might in his abstractions.

The message in ``Rusty Sky'' is distinguished by the nearly 500 years that separate it from the execution of the Sistine fresco. And while art and science have teamed up to clean the chapel ceiling, no amount of chemical treatment could ever ``clean'' this surface. The sky is a mess. Which is precisely the point. Our skies are a mess.

The artist presents the creation of man - paragon of animals - as the creation of earth's most destructive inhabitant.

But the show itself is evidence that man's own creative ability is also intact. And, like most everything else that comes from Germany, craftsmanship is the word. Thomas Ruff's wall-size photographs have more clarity and definition than most people's 3-by-5-inch vacation snapshots.

Stephan Balkenhol's ``Man With Black Trousers'' is an elegantly chiseled work of painted beech. The full effect comes from looking at it in profile, where the delicate curve of the spine seems entirely organic - the artist speaking through the medium instead of raising his voice over it.

Heinz Emigholz's series of 138 print images tells a story as it moves along - with enough non sequiturs and knife imagery for a covey of Freudian psychologists.

And then there is a beautiful sculpture called ``Pancake Theory'' of slat construction and canvas that looks as though a Batman and Robin POW! BAM! BIF! fight is going on inside. The canvas bulges and contracts, and though it is physically stationary, it is full of movement in its stillness.

Heiner Blum's vertical dot-matrix war portraits are labeled with the names of the evangelists: JOHN, MARK, LUKE, MATT. And there's one that would surely have pleased Andy Warhol, whose response to the question ``What is art?'' is said to have been, ``A man's name.'' (The photograph shows a German soldier with the word ART boldly written across the bottom edge.)

The easiest work to criticize - but also the one from which visitors could potentially learn the most - is a somewhat off-putting Imi Knoebel conceptual piece.

As you approach it, it seems to be a sheet of plywood, about five feet long and well lit. It is, in fact, just that. But more. The card next to the work reads ``Untitled; acrylic on plywood.'' Which points out a seeming discrepancy.

If you're standing where you can read the card and wondering where the acrylic is, you're likely to glance back over and actually see it.

As it turns out, there are two plywood sheets fastened together. The inside face of each is painted bright red. The only way the viewer knows that is by looking at the sides of the ``painting'' and seeing (carelessly splashed? or carefully manipulated?) remnants of color.

A work like this bluntly expresses what other works do more subtly. Thus its presence in the show is justified as having more than just shock or anger value. Though it seems an exotic, it is perhaps the most plain-speaking item in the show.

If there is a common theme to the German works in the ``BiNATIONALE,'' it is this: Surface and Interior. Emotion is expressed from within and radiates outward. This is equally true for the paintings and the sculpture in the show.

And so, accordingly, we are confronted with a painting that has an interior. The essence of a thing is not written on its surface alone.

Some of the art in the ``BiNATIONALE'' is there to trap the viewer, to garner undeserved attention - a screaming, spoiled child. But some of it works through understatement and stands up to careful reflection. In this way, the show will both build you up and wear you out.

But ultimately it is a well-organized and judiciously chosen art event. Thomas Huber's large oil ``Paintings Storeroom'' articulates the purpose behind such shows - art is to be seen.

It took daring for a handful of museums to put together this show. They are introducing new artists to the American scene and going out on a limb to do so.

Just as such museums have a responsibility to preserve a heritage, they also must have the vision to see where the heritage is going, and to have a hand in that as well.

The point being, as Alan Shestack, director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, has said, ``The art museum is an encyclopedia, not a storage facility.''

My ``Paintings Storeroom'' series shows an ordinary cellar with no windows, into which wrapped-up pictures will disappear for quite a long time. The absence of windows follows the current style of museum buildings, which more and more resemble storerooms that emphasize the isolation of things. The story of pictures is a continuation of evolution. We are mortal, but made in the image of God. We are made of finite material, but we can imagine pictures of infinite beauty. This fluctuation between two realities makes it possible for the day to come when we shall disappear in the pictures.

Thomas Huber

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