SOME OF US have known for many years that Meyer Schapiro is one of the world's great readers of art. His lectures at Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum would draw audiences awed rather than merely enthusiastic; his rare articles, usually hidden away in volumes addressed to a specialized public, won him a select group of ardent followers. In a lesser scholar, Meyer Schapiro's hypnotic eloquence would have been suspect, but one always knew that intense research and an astonishing erudition guaranteed his most imaginative sweeps.

Since 1977, Meyer Schapiro has lent himself to a four-volume gathering in of his "Selected Papers." The first volume, on Romanesque art, was acclaimed by the reviewers; this second volume, which appeared late last year and won the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, should further establish his reputation among a wider public.

Altogether, Modern Art contains 14 essays of varying length and importance, but even the most modest, most casual among them -- an introduction to a book on the work of Arshile Gorky, or to an exhibition catalogue of Cezanne's water-colors -- are distinguished by Schapiro's original perceptions and his unashamed passion for the works of art before him. But, to my mind, the longest essays in this collection -- on Courbet, on the Armory Show, and on Cezanne's still-lifes -- are the most significant, though the very recent piece on Mondrian, based on decades of preoccupation with abstract art, will also find many admirers. Schapiro's influential study of Courbet's use of popular imagery, which is as learned about mid-19th-century French literature as it is about French painting of that period, exhibits a concern that was most pronounced in Schapiro's younger years: the relation of art to society, "the social movements which promoted realism."

In some contrast, his fascinating, immensely informative article on the Armory Show, which, as Schapiro shows, markedly accelerated the introduction of the most daring contemporary European art into the American consciousness, concentrates more on the relations of artists to other artists and of artistic rebels to their public, than on culture itself. But culture is not forgotten: "The issues at stake in the Armory Show were not simply aesthetic problems isolated from all the others. To accept the new art meant to further the outlook of modern culture as a whole." Meyer Schapiro has never been one to isolate aesthetic problems from all the others. But in 1968, with his justly admired piece on Cezanne's apples, an erudite and profoundly perceptive meditation on modern still-life in general and Cezanne's choice of apples in particular, Schapiro turned to psychoanalysis for inspiration, to explore the erotic roots of Cezanne's obsessively reiterated choice of apples -- rounded, luscious, linked in popular speech and classical mythology to physical love. Yet even in this essay, inward though it is in its direction, keen though it is on uncovering the latent mysteries of Cezanne's supreme art, Schapiro does not neglect the visible side of the artist's experience. "To rest with the explanation of the still-life as a displaced sexual interest," he writes, "is to miss the significance of still-life in general as well as important meanings of the objects on the manifest plane." This is the creative tension that has been with Schapiro from the late 1930s. Thus in a relatively early essay of 1952, on one of Van Gogh's last paintings, Schapiro can already foreshadow the psychoanalytic interests of his later years with comments on "the beloved object" and on "objects of anxiety" which haunted, and shaped, Van Gogh's work.

In failing to present these essays in chronological order, this book obstructs a view of Schapiro's development as critic and thinker. Almost from the start, Meyer Schapiro was aware of the social, cultural, and psychological dimensions of art. But in those early days, it was the first of these that he stressed at the expense of the second and, even more, the third. In fact, the earliest of the pieces reprinted here, an interesting rumination on abstract art, first published in 1937, appeared in the first issue of a short-lived journal on art and culture, the Marxist Quarterly . (It seems odd, and hardly fair to Meyer Schapiro, that the provenance of all his pieces should be meticulously recorded except for this one on "The Nature of Abstract Art." It cannot be that Schapiro himself wished to conceal his one-time association with Marxist intellectuals; after all, he was willing to reprint it here, and to call attention to it in his prefatory note as a piece which now seems to him, partly, "inadequate or mistaken.")

To open the book with the most famous of these articles, the piece on "The Apples of Cezanne," makes a certain dramatic sense; it confronts the reader still unfamiliar with Meyer Schapiro's writings with one of the most exhilarating essays he ever wrote. But it slights that other drama I have mentioned: that of Schapiro's development. It would be simplistic to describe that drama as a voyage from Marx to Freud: his early piece on abstract art is far from doctrinaire Marxism; his late piece on Cezanne's apples is far from doctrinaire Freudianism. As this book shows over and over again, Schapiro has always been more interested in what he can see and dig up, than in applying some ready-made scheme to works of art: works of art he loves -- a love which, to our delight and benefit, he conveys to his readers in full measure.