You rarely hear his name these days, but once upon a time, in the early 1950s, Lee Gatch of New Jersey (1902-68) was among the most respected painters in the land.

Twice in that decade, first in 1950 and again in 1956, his paintings were exhibited at the American pavilions at the Venice Biennales. Twice he was the subject of comprehensive retrospectives. The first, in 1956, visited the Phillips; the second, four years later, opened at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan and toured the country. His patrons were devoted -- Duncan Phillips and Joseph H. Hirshhorn were among the most distinguished -- and lesser-known collectors jostled one another for a chance to buy his pictures. In 1961, he was awarded the first prize at the Corcoran Biennial. But then he sort of vanished.

The Lee Gatch exhibition that opens today at the Phillips Collection is a telling curiosity. It helps us understand why his reputation's waned.

His art seems oddly muddled now, as if it were concocted from a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Gatch was thought a cubist once, though that sense of forms revolving and of time transpiring, felt so strongly in grand cubist works, is missing from his paintings. They are skeletal, but weakly so. The triangles and swooping curves -- which lend a bit of structure to his semi-abstract pictures -- look now like decorative devices. And Gatch's outlined armatures somehow contradict the thin singing, the small poetry, that hums within his art.

"The first painting I saw by Lee Gatch made on me an immediate impression of distinguished originality," Duncan Phillips wrote in 1949. (That oil, "Bagpipes in the Morning -- Marching Highlanders," is in the exhibition: Duncan Phillips bought it.) But the first big Gatch show I saw -- his ample 1960 Whitney retrospective -- made me grit my teeth.

It opened at the same time as a Milton Avery retrospective. Both men based much of their work on lyrical and simplified visions of the landscape; both were tempted toward the realms of pure abstraction but would not go all the way. Comparisons were inevitable. But Avery's clean simplicities and gorgeous glowing colors blew Lee Gatch away.

Gatch seemed then, and still seems now, an archetypal '50s modernist caught between the cautious painting of the '40s and the larger, far more vigorous art that was to come.

By the standards of the time he had fine modernist credentials. After art school (at the Maryland Institute), he won a scholarship to France, to the American School at Fontainebleau. In 1925, he studied for a while with the cubist Andre' Lhote at the Acade'mie Moderne in Paris. Later, in New York, he shared a studio with Jack Tworkov (and then entered into a brief marriage with Tworkov's sister Janice). In 1935, Gatch married Elsie Driggs, another gifted painter. In 1937, they bought an old stone house near Lambertville, N.J. Gatch would live and work there, in relative isolation, for the remainder of his life.

One sees at once why Phillips so admired Gatch. Most of Gatch's pictures are relatively small, and Phillips always had a fondness for works of sweet, domestic scale. Gatch distrusted theory and cold intellectual rigor. Instead he based his pictures on what he saw in nature; he relied on intuition, and that pleased Phillips, too.

Gatch chose as his subjects parades and cancan dancers, landscapes, skyscapes, rivers, the moon reflected in the water and the paschal lamb. He painted, wrote his patron, "with the clarity of a true mystic's inner eye."

What looked like mysticism once now seems mere artifice. And his pictures now seem unoriginal. Memories of his betters are prompted time and time again by the 26 paintings in this show.

The flowers drawn in outline in thin white lines on black in "The Bride" of 1968 suggest the graphics of Matisse. The electric light bulb in a star of light that appears at the top of Gatch's "Game Tapestry" (1965) seems a steal from Picasso's "Guernica." The canvas-on-canvas collaging, seen so often in Gatch's later pictures, calls to mind the similar technique, and more impressive paintings, of Conrad Marca-Relli. Gatch's "Night Fishing" (1956) is somehow overwhelmed by the viewer's memories of Picasso's "Night Fishing at Antibes." Gatch's structural drawing recalls that of Karl Knaths, another Phillips favorite.

And one feels that Gatch owes even more to the art of Arthur Dove -- his patchwork frames are Dove-like. And if one starts to wonder how an aging Gatch came up with the idea of combining sheets of stone with bits of glued-down canvas, look at Dove's "Huntington Harbor I" of 1926, which is on display nearby.

Were Gatch's pictures stronger, more coherent, more compelling, such recollections would bounce off them. Instead doubts and memories nibble at his pictures. Gatch's faded reputation will not soon revive. That is the saddening, certain message of this show. It closes March 27.