A world premier exhibit of contemporary German artists, whose paintings are frequently Wagnerian in size and shrill in style, provides visitors with an alternative view of that complex nation.

"Refigured Painting: The German Image 1960-88," runs through Jan. 8 at the Toledo Museum of Art, then it moves to the Guggenheim Museum in New York from Feb. 3 to April 23. More than 130 paintings by 40 artists also will go on display in Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, West Germany."It's the most important exhibit of a first generation of German painters," said Robert Phillips, the project's coordinator and curator of the museum's contemporary art collection.

"It's not intended to be retrospective or a tracking of their career. It gives an idea of where they are coming from," he said, adding that the exhibition is the first comprehensive look at German paintings of the past three decades.

The enormous paintings, some measuring 20 feet by 30 feet, forced curators to use an incredible amount of wall space. Several paintings will be displayed on a wall built to accommodate them at the museum's main entrance.

The exhibit features works by Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Jorg Immendorff and Rainer Fetting, as well as others not often exhibited in the United States.

Several paintings were sent to Toledo direct from the studios after the artists completed them, Phillips said.

"The whole flavor of the exhibit is violent, shrill, muscular," said Robert Rosenblum, professor of art history at New York University, who viewed several paintings.

"They look as though they are exploding in every direction," he said. "After leaving the exhibition and walking into a room with American abstracts, they (American artists) looked almost serene in comparison."

Immendorff's "Cafe Deutschland," a dark and brooding view of German culture and the rebuilding of society after the war, is perhaps the best recognized work of a contemporary German artist in the exhibit.

Other paintings are more abstract and confront viewers with violent colors and topics designed to shock first and convey a message second. At each turn, viewers are confronted by the sheer size of the paintings, although a number conform to standard-size images.

"While size is no indication of quality, it is certainly an indication of ambition," Phillips said.

Rosenblum, who saw the paintings before the show, agreed that their size is impressive.

"I think the word is Wagnerian," he said.

Baselitz, whose paintings are shown upside down, is represented by 12 works, the oldest being "B. for Larry" done in 1967. A group of 50 Baselitz's drawings and paintings from a private collection are on display in a different part of the museum.

Modern art was condemned by Adolph Hitler before the war as degenerate. After the war a major exhibition in Europe of American post-war paintings had a profound affect on artists there, Phillips said.

"The American abstact paintings suggested to German artists that there was a lot of possibilities they might have ignored," he said.

Many paintings contain references to the Third Reich; others offer a cryptic views of modern German culture or society in general.

"The main thing for me is, I've learned so much from it. There are so many artists I have not seen or heard of before. This for me is an education," said Rosenblum. "I'm only familiar with about half of the artists."

Rosenblum said the exhibition carries an international flavor as well.

"There are all kinds of cross currents here. A lot of it looks intensely German, with Nazism and German national culture," Rosenblum said. "I couldn't imagine it is coming from any other country but Germany."

The exhibit was organized by Williams College Museum of Art of Williamstown, Mass., and the Guggenheim Museum.

Sandy Krawetz, marketing director for the Toledo museum, said the estimated attendance for the exhibit is about 20,000, much smaller than for other major exhibitions but she added that people attracted to modern art will make a point of seeing it.

The museum also is sponsoring a lecture and German movie series to coincide with the exhibit. A 270-page catalog with six illustrated essays and color reproductions of over 150 works of art is available in English and German editions at $29.95.