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NEW COLLECTIONS ACHIEVE AN ARTISTIC BALANCE FROM RAUSCHENBERG AND POP ART TO THE TREASURES OF THE HERMITAGE

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, taking advantage of perestroika, visited the Soviet Union last year and caused a kind of mini artistic revolution. While there he was given the first solo show by a Western abstract painter. He taught, lectured and shared ideas and techniques with an enthralled band of Soviet artists.

The Soviet artists in the 1990 Venice Biennial were so impressed by Rauschenberg that they not only put one of the huge paintings he made in their country in the middle of their pavilion, they dedicated the entire enterprise to him.

Such extravagant response from young foreign artists just learning about recent American art indicates the undiminished power of Rauschenberg's artistic personality. At 65, his ambitious projects continue unabated and in recent years have taken on an unprecedented international scope.

Mary Lynn Kotz's "Robert Rauschenberg: Art and Life" (Abrams, 320 pages; 200 illustrations, 92 in color; $65) begins on this international note with an account of the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange. The artist calls it ROCI for short, after his pet turtle Rocky, and envisions it as an organization facilitating "one-to-one contact with artists" the world over. Kotz sets a magnificent stage: the artist in middle age still breaking barriers; still with his legendary energy and enthusiasm intact; still finding new ways to work in the "gap" between art and life that Rauschenberg claimed as his working place in the late 1950s.

With the vitality of Rauschenberg's current career well documented, Kotz moves on to an account of the artist's life. As she carries her subject through his days at Black Mountain College and on to early fame in New York, she shifts gracefully between hard fact and cogent descriptions of the multitude of works executed along the way.

Kotz, always in control, is a lively and thorough guide. Rauschenberg is sometimes excessive in his art and can inspire excess in his commentators. Not in Kotz's case. She has an ability to describe and analyze without bogging down in the wealth of material that an artist of Rauschenberg's astounding production provides. It's a gem of a book, filled with fine illustrations and fine commentary.

The Russia drawn by Colin Eisler in the first chapter of the superb "Paintings in the Hermitage" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 653 pages) is a country light year from that found by Rauschenberg in 1989. He quotes Catherine the Great, the czarina who launched, in 1765, what would become one of the greatest art collections in the world. "It is not love of art," she said with her usual blunt honesty, "it is voracity. I am not an amateur (art lover); I am a glutton."

Eisler captures to perfection the "opulent swagger" of this vast museum that holds works by every major European master from Leonardo and Raphael to Van Gogh and Cezanne and on to three or four of the world's greatest Matisses. The staggering Flemish and Dutch collection alone contains 1,500 pieces, including 41 Rubens and 24 Rembrandts.

Eisler's approach to this potentially overwhelming material is as refreshing as it is informative. He presents the work thematically -- religion, portraits, etc. In this way he can more or less ignore national boundaries and make comparisons unrestricted by art history's droning chronology. It's a dangerous approach and in weaker hands could have be become ordinary art appreciation, gloriously illustrated. Thanks to the author's fast-moving prose and uncanny ability to capsulize complicated ideas, Eisler makes it work wonderfully. It's not art history of the highest order, but so what? It is exceptional reading coupled with unsurpassed delight for the eyes. Who could want more of a big, fat art book?

Rauschenberg and a handful of other artists laid the groundwork for pop art, at least in this country. Marco Livingstone, in a sharply designed new history of pop, "Pop Art: A Continuing History" (Abrams, 272 pages; 366 illustrations, 300 in color), certainly gives Rauschenberg and the other Americans their due. But being British he has no built-in American slant. He keeps his sights broad, finding in pop's background such unexpected European artists as Asger Jorn, Yves Klein and even that painter of polished surrealist machines, Konrad Klapheck.

He takes the reader on a breathtaking run through the major American figures of the 1960s and '70s -- Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist -- giving ample attention along the way to such important but lesser-known artists as Joe Goode, Richard Artschwager and Robert Watts. Surveying Europe he calls our attention to important early practitioners, for example Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, two Germans who did original pop work in the early '60s.

This is a strong, even book throughout. The key to its strength is that Livingstone doesn't try to do it all. He focuses on the work and leaves the social implications of pop to be worked out by others.

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