AS a tribute to the late Alfred H. Barr Jr., the Museum of Modern Art's first director, the Forum Gallery here has mounted an unusual and fascinating show that re-creates MoMA's very first exhibition of American art. ``Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans'' opened Dec. 13, 1929, and offered museum visitors the rare opportunity to see a large and diverse group of contemporary American works under one roof. The selection of the 19 painters was described by Barr in the exhibition catalog: ``Ballots containing over 100 names were distributed among the trustees who were asked to check the 15 painters each thought should be shown. ... The results were tabulated and carefully studied by a committee who drew up the list of 19.''
What Barr didn't mention was that he added a few names to the tabulated list and subtracted a few, received the trustees' approval on his final selection, and then set out to artists' studios, museums, and private collections to choose the actual works. Among the artists selected were some, as he himself put it, so ``conservative that they were out of fashion and so advanced that they are not yet generally accepted.''
The list, in other words, was basically Barr's, and because it was, Bella Fishko, the Forum Gallery's director, decided to re-create the exhibition as a tribute to her old friend.
The 19 Americans were: Charles Burchfield, Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Lyonel Feininger, ``Pop'' Hart, Edward Hopper, Bernard Karfiol, Rockwell Kent, Walt Kuhn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Ernest Lawson, John Marin, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jules Pascin, John Sloan, Eugene Speicher, Maurice Sterne, and Max Weber.
Now, that's quite a list - one that speaks well for Barr's eye and judgment. In the intervening 60 years, none of the 19 has been entirely forgotten. Burchfield, Demuth, Feininger, Hopper, Kent, Marin, O'Keeffe and Sloan are probably more highly regarded now than they were in 1929. And Lawson now ranks high among America's major Impressionists.
In assembling the current show, the gallery was able to locate and borrow 21 of the paintings in the original exhibition, and to supplement these with other, similar works by the same artists and of the same period.
The result is an excellent exhibition, with at least a dozen top-notch works, and only five or six pieces of relatively little interest.
Dominating everything else is Kent's monumental ``Toilers of the Sea,'' surely one of the finest American paintings of the first quarter of this century and undoubtedly Kent's masterpiece. It is so good, in fact, that it puts most of his other paintings (the exceptions being a number of his other early seascapes) to shame. When I was standing in front of it, the word ``great'' kept coming to mind. But I continue to be bothered by one important question: How is it possible that an artist as talented and prolific as Kent produced only one ``great'' painting, while the others ranged from remarkable to embarrassingly bad?
Hopper's ``House by the Railroad'' (1925) is another exceptional work that looks better every time I see it. One of the highlights of the 1929 show, it was given anonymously to MoMA the following year. Considering MoMA's subsequent commitment to the avant-garde, it is interesting that this was the first painting to enter its permanent collection.
Marin's four watercolors are also of very high quality. His ``Sail Boat in Harbor'' greets visitors as they step off the elevator and sets the tone for the show. It's the only one of the four included in the 1929 exhibition, and it's by far the most dramatic.
Also outstanding are Burchfield's ``Country Blacksmith Shop,'' O'Keeffe's ``Radiator Building,'' Pascin's ``Mary,'' and Weber's ``Still Life with Three Jugs.''
How was the show received back in 1929? Not very well, according to Terence Dewsnap, curator of the 1990 version. Both public and press believed Barr's selection was intended to represent America's best artists, not a broad cross section of various trends.
In the largest sense, however, the show was a success. It gave timely support to important artists, and it provoked a great deal of discussion. I recommend ``Nineteen Americans'' highly. It remains on view at the Forum Gallery through March 10.