ART ACROSS AMERICA

Two Centuries of Regional Painting By William H. Gerdts Abbeville. Three volumes with slipcase $425 until Dec. 31; $495 thereafter

AT 28 POUNDS, this is not a coffee table book; it's a coffee table. That's a compliment; it deserves to be out for delight, not sentenced to the reference shelves.

The premise is fresh and wise, the production admirable. Here are three fat, well-designed volumes, glowing with more than a thousand illustrations on good paper, within sturdy covers. For the rich connoisseurs and libraries who must be the intended audience for a set priced at $425, this is a good buy. Not cheap, but nobody else will do this so comprehensively and carefully, and the "this" is worth doing.

The best writing in the book is the statement of its premise, by Gertrude Stein: "After all anybody is as their land and air is . . . the sky . . . the air heavy or clear . . . as there is wind or no wind there. It is that which makes them and the arts they make . . .." Art comes from a place; this is a book about the locality of art. It is about how and where painters come to see and express seeing. That is done, of course, not from looking at slides, but being and observing and feeling in three dimensions.

Gerdts does not have Stein's gift for fresh expression. His editors have failed to jog him out of Time-ese ("updating," "longtime"), or to crop his adjectival inevitabilities. Interest is "tremendous," streams are "sensuous," things are "very special" and, when weary, he turns often to "lovely" and makes us weary too. I lost count of how many towns and states are "host to" something, and wished natural features, like mountains, were not made "icons." From an art historian?

But Gerdts compensates in comprehensiveness for his deficiencies of prose. He has, by immense diligence, given us a great gift. His work does, as he claims, differ "radically" from the countless monographs on art history which have focussed on the big cities, and upon New York in particular. By looking beyond the palisades (capitalized or otherwise), this book will make it possible for Americans to enjoy a hundred-fold enlargement of their pleasures in good painting.

If you want to know what living in Delaware might have done to create a kind of painting differing from that of, say, Alabama, from the onset of European settlement until the Great Crash of 1929, or if you want to know what to seek in the museums or collections of almost any town where such institutions exist in America, these are the volumes for you. If you are a student, and seek, in one place, genuinely useful color illustrations of all the "big figures" and 700 not-so-big figures, this is the book for you, too.

Only one illustration is allowed anyone associated with one place. It's one person, one vote, amended to: one person, one expensive color reproduction. A remarkable number of the persons, it turns out, are women.

Good notes, good index, good bibliography, good idea well executed. Roger Kennedy, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, is the author, most recently, of "Greek Revival America" and "Rediscovering America."