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OUT OF HIDING
FROM THE ALBRIGHT-KNOX VAULTS, A SHOW OF SELDOM-SEEN PIECES

In art exhibitions as in life, great expectations can deflate even a very adequate reality.
So it is with "From Behind Closed Doors: Twentieth-Century Figuration from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery," the Albright-Knox's current exhibition at the Anderson Gallery.

By the usual standards, the show is sound enough. Studded as it is with big names and familiar work from modern art's past by Matisse, Picasso, Renoir and Maillol, it's bound to hold considerable interest. Big, bright pieces by Andy Warhol (his brilliant silkscreen portraits of Mao Tse-tung) and Tom Wesselmann ("Bedroom Painting No. 40," 1978) add color and pop art audacity.

The Buffalo-connected Cindy Sherman moves us gingerly toward the present with a couple of her untitled self-portraits from the '80s and an example of her now-famous "film stills" (in which she assumes the role of an anxious European film star lurking in the shadowy confines of a typical new-wave set).

It falls mainly to Kiki Smith, currently a hot name in the art world, to represent the present with the big rotogravure lithograph "My Blue Lake" (1995). This weird work features a huge blue face deformed laterally so as to resemble a kind of map of water, complete with signs for current patterns that double as stubble on a huge Jay Leno-like chin.

The rest of the show serves up work by an array of interesting American artists, from Robert Henri (the beautiful "Tam Gan," 1914), George Luks and Yasuo Kuniyoshi to Richard Hunt, Grace Hartigan, Romare Bearden and Dennis Oppenheim, who disturbs the sober atmosphere of the show with whirring and thrashing noises from his 1984 kinetic machine "Newton Discovering Gravity."

But I have to say I went in with great, big, fat, highly overinflated expectations. Why wouldn't I? That title, "Behind Closed Doors." Doesn't it suggest that secrets are to be revealed? I thought, at last, the high priests of this great contemporary collection were about to momentarily step aside and let us glimpse freely into the dark interior, where not every piece is a masterpiece and where not every artist necessarily fits into the mainstream version of modern art.

I was hoping for more truly offbeat works -- maybe some of those folkish paintings so long hidden in the vaults, or perhaps a selection of pieces by women artists that seldom see the light of day. There is a wealth of work that is unfamiliar in the collection, work that no longer quite fits the definition of modernism as embodied by the Albright-Knox. This would have been the time to see it.

What we get instead is a host of familiar works mixed in with a modest selection of lesser-known paintings and sculpture. Marino Marini's "Dancer," Gaston Lachaise's "Standing Woman," Picasso's "Woman's Head" and Matisse's "Reclining Nude" are all well-known. And Warhol's portrait of Seymour H. Knox and Jackson Pollock's 1935 "Cotton Pickers" are regularly on view at the gallery, as are many other pieces in this exhibition.

The presence of familiar works -- some unchallenged masterpieces of the collection -- give the show its pedigree. Lest the less-than-great works cause embarrassment, they are absorbed into the larger scheme of the exhibition by what amounts to a finely conceived lesson on the progress of modern art.

For instance, a row of sculpted heads near the entry to the exhibition is studiously arranged so that the differences between the hearty neo-classicism of Daniel Chester French (in a 1907 head) and the gentler neo-classicism of Charles Despiau's 1909 "Young Peasant Girl" can be explored. Despiau worked with Rodin in his early years but remained a sweetly restrained modernist. Next to "Young Peasant Girl" is Picasso's "Woman's Head," executed the same year. It is one of the monuments of analytical cubism. Its grouping with Despiau and French makes the point that cubism was not only radical, but it came to fruition shockingly early, during a time when such artists as French and Despiau were carrying forward the tradition of French classicism.

A similar comparison happens in a group of sculptures of the female nude. Matisse's great "Reclining Nude" of 1907 is at the radical forefront, Frank Dobson's 1923 "Susannah" takes up the conservative rear, and Renoir's 1913 "Small Standing Venus" occupies the voluptuous middle. In this august company, Dobson barely has a chance.

A veteran of teaching university art appreciation classes, I have to admit that I enjoy any game in which modern art kicks the tar out of older, "less enlightened" art. And the comparative game generally can be fun.

In a wall of drawings, for example, two Matisse nudes show their fronts and two show their backs. It's as if the models were somehow in on this sly demonstration of the artist's marvelous stylistic variations on female anatomy and pose accordingly. And the game continues: At one end of the sequence is Matisse in a rare cubist mood, at the other the "traditional" Matisse takes over with one of his more beautifully rendered odalisques.

Such well-wrought "lessons" need a much livelier visual environment, however. Except for Henri's vivid portrait, one side of the main gallery is occupied by dark or colorless works covering some 50 feet of wall space. There's a blackish family portrait by Charles W. Hawthorne, along with Pollock's dark and awful "Cotton Pickers." Darkish paintings by George Bellows and Andre Derain follow, separated by a really dark painting by Edwin Dickinson.

A not-quite-so-dark portrait by Augustus John seems absolutely colorful by comparison. Meanwhile, down the line, Kuniyoshi has drained all the blood out of a pensive, half-dressed smoker and sat her against a pale gray sky with wisps of pink and salmon.

It's actually a relief to come to Grace Hartigan's abstract figure. As terrible as the painting is -- and as marginally as she addresses the figure -- it provides much-needed color therapy after that long wall of gloom.

But color can't perform miracles, as George Segal's disastrous serigraphs prove. Sophomoric colored lines outline cliche figures surrounded by overdesigned patches of color. These clunky drawings add nothing to the show -- except perhaps the knowledge that this is one modern sculptor who might be wise to forgo 2-D work altogether.

Warhol and the eternally perky Wesselmann set the tone for the last gallery. It's interesting to note that though Warhol renders his portraits of Mao in the most cavalier manner, they move far beyond a mere glib pop art joke. Wesselmann, on the other hand, labors for effects, employing exotic color which he locks in the straitjacket of unyielding billboard form. His woman, eroticized though she may be, remains a puppet, dead as the lamp next to her.

Across the way a drawing of two wrestlers by Robert Longo -- another artist with a Buffalo history -- is a terrible tease if you happen to know that the Albright-Knox also owns the spectacular four-foot-wide relief by the same name, for which this drawing is a study. The seldom-seen relief would have made the room. OK, it's a big black work, its lacquered surface darker than the darkest from the main gallery. But I doubt that anyone would think of voids and absence in the face of these bulgingly aggressive figures.

Albright-Knox Director Douglas G. Schultz, temporarily without a curatorial staff, curated the exhibition. The exact date for the gallery's reopening after its renovation has yet to be announced, though it should be by early October. In the meantime, the current exhibition will continue through Nov. 1 at the Anderson Gallery, on Martha Jackson Place (834-2579).