"PUERTO RICAN PAINTING," an exhibit of which is at the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America, has been struggling into the 20th century for the past 80-odd years.

At one point the island could claim only two painters of note -- Francisco Oller and Ramon Frade. Oller, the more promising, lived in France and was friends with Impressionists and painted like them. But he gave all that up to return to Puerto Rico and a more realistic, regional style.

So much for stepping into the future. But in 1949, the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Munoz Marin, created the Division of Community Education. Some divisions were to serve as a sort of Bauhaus, giving artists the opportunity to experiment.

Charged with educating the people about their heritage, the artists communicated through the poster. The colorful results of this "silkscreen poster movement" can be seen in a second show, "Images of a Culture: The Puerto Rican Poster," now at the Library of Congress. To promote the National Theater, an Oller exhibit, a Casals Festival, the artists provocatively meshed folklore and bold lettering.

At the same time, painting took steps forward -- but timid ones. While avant-garde American artists were immersed in abstract expressionism, most of the artists in this show were insisting on realism. The influences of the great 20th-century movements in art showed up in watered-down versions -- too little, much later. Only today has the artistic mainstream in Puerto Rico accepted the eclectic. That's why the contemporary art in this 80-year retrospective has the most appeal. It's vital, from Mari Mater O'Neill's horrific "Self-Portrait" to Luis Cruz's expressionistic painting, a textured puzzle called "Levitation."

But Carlos Irizarry sounds an artist's plaint with "Transculturation." He copies the farmer carrying plantain from a painting by Ramon Frade ("Our Bread," also in the exhibit) and juxtaposes that image with one of a deteriorating, glowing robot man, his coaxial cable guts spilling out.

Some come kicking and screaming.


Through September 25 at the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America (behind the OAS Building), 201 18th Street NW.


Through March 1988 at the Library of Congress, Madison Building.