ARTISTS AND WRITERS

By Sanford Schwartz

Yarrow Press. 322 pp. $24.95

ENCOUNTERS & REFLECTIONS

Art in the Historical Present

By Arthur C. Danto

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 356 pp. $22.95

A COUPLE of years ago, at the Metropolitan's Degas blockbuster, an elderly couple in front of me were both hooked up to the tape-recorded tour of the exhibition. The husband seemed impatient to struggle through the crowd, hooked a finger at the next picture, and hollered to his wife: "Have you heard that one yet?"

Of course, pictures do talk to us, though they generally tell us what we want to hear or are listening for. These new books by two of our leading art critics are, so to speak, lively conversationalists in the galleries. Each gathers together essays from the past few years, on work that ranges from Watteau to Warhol, Caravaggio to Koons. These kinds of miscellaneous collections are of interest for two reasons. Either they display a critical sensibility that intrigues and illuminates, or they serve as the record of a period of time in the art world, an account of those openings and retrospectives that reflect the taste of the times. These books are of the rare order that please on both counts.

Of the two, Sanford Schwartz's Artists and Writers is the less provocative but the more vivid. As his title indicates, Schwartz includes essays on writers as different as Kleist and Updike, and on eccentric but essential cultural figures like Glenn Gould and dance critic Edwin Denby. Because he is an astute reader, Schwartz is never less than interesting on these writers, but rarely more. His style stiffens up; received ideas are entertained or dismissed with a colorful but tentative authority. The same is true when he takes on the old masters. It is amusing to hear Zurbaran described as voluptuously "chic," his portraits of saints compared with geisha. Or a Fragonard picture called "a rococo version of an Albers Hommage to the Square." But the glib diamond chip on Schwartz's shoulder -- as when he dismisses Caravaggio as "tacky" -- is finally tiresome.

It is when he turns to his contemporaries that Schwartz's intelligent eye and flashing prose style converge to offer marvelous readings of work both familiar and unfamiliar. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, Schwartz reminds me somewhat of Pauline Kael; distrustful of earnestness and mere theatricality, he likes work that gives him a "charge," a heart-thump, that stirs both his feelings and memories to a pitch that is as often sublime as vulgar. He can be partisan. His admiration for Alex Katz extends so far as to hail him as "a one-man testing ground for new ideas" in the art world, and then to offer as his example Katz's answer to a hostess's question, "How much can you tell about a man from what he wears?" Schwartz is reverently impressed when Katz responds "Everything." Did I miss something? Is that profound? Is it an "idea"?

Readers will argue with his other enthusiasms and dismissals. My own eyebrows go up when he says David Salle is "a new kind of classical master," or Gilbert and George are "among the most complex and satisfying European artists of the past fifteen years," or Philip Guston is "the cornerstone of . . . recent art," or Julian Schnabel is "one of the warmest talents in American painting ever." What is unarguable is Schwartz's brilliant gift for metaphor, a gift for evoking the textures and energies of a picture. Looking at Andy Warhol's serial pictures of celebrities, for instance, is "like passing a construction-site wall that has been plastered with row after row of the same announcement for a long-gone event." Julian Schnabel's paintings, to which broken crockery or antlers may have been attached, assume the "air of King Ludwig's Bavarian castles."

A long, ambivalent essay about Clement Greenberg reveals Schwartz's distrust of theory, of any rigid allegiance to a hidebound tradition. The '80s were, he insists, "a free, undoctrinaire period for painting and sculpture," and he writes about its characteristic artists -- Eric Fischl, Francesco Clemente, Anselm Kiefer, and Schnabel -- with a corresponding openness and gusto, with a sharp eye for the new art's relations to popular culture and popular taste, its appetite for irony and fakery. Of Warhol, for example, he says that artist's "lifelong gesture might be called the making of a sham body of work." With the darting, exuberant wit that distinguishes this book, Schwartz looks at Warhol's use of folklore and calls him our Chagall.

Arthur Danto, on the other hand, says Warhol is (I hesitate to repeat this in a family newspaper) "the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced." The claim is advanced because it suits Danto's argument that we reached the end of art history in 1964, with Warhol's exhibit of Brillo boxes. The mere making of art continues, but the narrative of art and its self-transformations -- from Renaissance perspective to Pop -- is over; revolutionary breakthroughs are impossible when there is no longer any difference between art and non-art. This is the third book in which Danto has made the same Chicken Little argument. It's the kind of point bound to be blunted by future events, but curious to consider.

It is no wonder Danto often seems to be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. In addition to serving as art critic for The Nation, he is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. He brings an impressive philosophical methodology, at once rigorous and playful, to his task, but also reduces that task to his expertise. Danto argues it is necessary to view 20th-century art as "a collective investigation by artists into the philosophical nature of art." That there are no illustrations accompanying the text of Encounters & Reflections is itself an illustration of Danto's wandering eye. His essays begin with a teasing philosophical problem, and are usually more interested in Art than in works of art. His prose and his pedantry are both sometimes fussy, and ramble in a genial classroom manner. There is also a deep melancholy at the heart of his meditations -- a spleen against "the terrible engines of promotion, manipulation and exploitation" that power the art scene today.

But for all his skepticism, Danto remains a spirited critic. Essays here on artists as diverse as Raphael and Veronese, Demuth and Boccioni are exhilarating excursions. His conceptual perspectives are bracing, and his range of interests -- from Sienese painting to Robert Mapplethorpe (who, he wittily notes, "phallusized aesthetics") -- is daunting.

We need both these books to help the pictures in front of us talk back. One engages in quick-witted repartee. The other asks some hard first questions.

J.D. McClatchy is the editor of "Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets." His new collection of poems, "The Rest of the Way," will appear this fall.