FOR the past 40 years, the Sidney Janis Gallery has been on the leading edge of New York's fast-moving art scene. Sidney Janis, who founded the gallery with his wife, Harriet, retired last spring. But the gallery that bears his name remains active - presenting the kind of modern art that has long been associated with the Janis name, and often mounting shows in the two-artist format that Mr. Janis pioneered. To celebrate the gallery's 40th anniversary, I visited its current chief - Carroll Janis, the son of Sidney and Harriet - during a recent, gala show that included works by four artists: Jean Arp, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, and Alberto Giacometti, all of whom the Janises have long championed. Indeed, the gallery's very first show was ``a wonderful Leger exhibition,'' according to Carroll Janis.
Even before starting their gallery, the elder Janises ``had been collectors of modern art for 25 years,'' their son recalls. ``They were passionate about art from the 1920s, when they met. They frequented all the galleries ... through the '30s and '40s.
``After World War II, they finally decided to open a gallery.
``Now it's 40 years later, and [the gallery] has covered quite a range of art - from the European 20th-century masters, to the Abstract Expressionists, to the Pop artists, to younger artists since. The gallery has always been interested in that kind of range.''
One key to running a gallery is having the confidence to innovate as well as to consolidate artistic reputations. The confidence of the Janis family has grown from a deep familiarity with the whole spectrum of modern art - a familiarity acquired at first hand and stretching back through many phases of artistic evolution.
``It was different in the late '40s and early '50s,'' Carroll Janis muses.
``First of all, the artists that the gallery showed - the Abstract Expressionists - my folks had written about in one of the first books on modern art in 1944. They knew all the artists. There weren't that many artists in those days; it was a small art world. ...
``And they collected the artists. So when it came to showing an artist - like Pollock or Rothko or De Kooning or Klein - they were long acquainted, and all knew each other very well. [Arshile] Gorky was a dear friend of my folks, and used to come to the house all the time when I was growing up. So did many other artists.''
The art scene has changed since then, of course. ``Now there's a much bigger art world,'' says Janis, who is on the front lines coping with it continually. ``There are many directions and many fine things going on today; there are 500 galleries, and dozens and dozens of interesting artists working in New York and America, and in Europe!''
Which makes for a better artistic situation - the smaller scene that existed in earlier years, or the bustling scene that exists now?
``I don't know,'' Janis admits. ``I was very young in [the earlier] days, and they were hard days for ... artists. Today it's still hard days for many artists. There are higher prices for some, but I know many artists who are having a very tough time financially. So in a way, it's not that much different for the great majority.
``But there's more media recognition, bigger museum shows, more galleries. ... ...And you have this auction phenomenon, which is probably not so healthy for the art world, but it has its positive side as well as its negative side.
``If artists are doing [financially] well - if some artists are doing well - that's more than you could say in the '40s, when nobody was doing well!''