Times Staff Writer

"The Artist as Social Designer: Aspects of Public Urban Art Today," at the County Museum of Art, puts its finger on one of the most significant developments in 20th-Century art. Unfortunately, the exhibition--if you can call it that--does little more than point out and document a major movement that has taken artists out of rareified galleries and into the real world of workaday processes and public access.

The only direct experience of public art open to those who visit the show is through four components of the installation: Mary Miss' wooden entryway; Elyn Zimmerman's circular tier of carpet-covered seating for a slide show; a bench and wooden stand holding printed material on actual public art projects, built by Scott Burton and assembled in a "Reading Room," and Nancy Holt's electrical lighting system made of exposed metal conduit and industrial fixtures, also in the "Reading Room."

Everything else in the show is either a photographic image (in slides or pictures displayed on walls) or a printed word. Diligent students could spend several days studying the catalogues and magazine reprints (on projects by about 25 artists) and emerge with a lot of information. What they wouldn't have gained is the feel of, say, Herbert Bayer's "Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks" (a park based on concave and convex circles in Kent, Wash.) or the three-dimensional look of Holt's "Dark Star Park" (a complex of undulating walkways and giant concrete spheres that offers a startling foil to an adjacent motor way in Rosslyn, Va.). In short, visitors have no chance to experience such achievements as art. The show concentrates on diluted encounters.

This problem is inherent in the material, and I don't know how this theme can be brought into a gallery with even moderate success. The artists' parks, playgrounds, outdoor furniture and reclamation projects can't be moved. They aren't making "Plop Art"--that dreadful stuff that gets tossed into urban settings without regard to context. The artworks presented here are far more thoughtful and complicated transformations of environments.

Models might help the uninitiated visualize the art, but the scale would be misleading and all-important context would be missing. Lively drawings would be better than poor reproductions, but they would still be peripheral information and not the real thing.

About the only viable possibility of bringing this art to second-hand life is a very expensive and time-consuming one: a series of films that delves into the complex processes of realizing a truly public work of art, including the physical hurdles and sticky controversies that almost invariably arise when fine art breaks out of its museum shell.

The multi-image slide show offered as the central event of the current exhibition is fine as far as it goes, but it presents the work as a museum offers artworks--as magnificent faits accomplis. Calvin Tomkins' script rightly emphasizes the context of the work, but viewers see only proposals and finished art, stripped of the social realities that have caused them to be gathered at the museum.

"The Artist as Social Designer" fails as an exhibition because it neglects the visual resonance we expect from art, but the show provides plenty of food for thought. One of the most profound but least talked about issues inherent in this work is the artists' faith in an art of social impact. We've been told that the central myth of the avant-garde (the belief that art can make a difference) is dead, yet here are legions of artists who persist in taking on the monumental chore of adapting their art to the real world. Even if they don't say so, they seem to do it in the hope of making their chosen sites more amenable to human beings.

Isamu Noguchi has turned his attention to playgrounds and healing places for urban distress. Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison have proposed a promenade for Baltimore that would serve as a connector of people with each other and with their city. Holt has concerned herself with landfills and drainage systems, while Burton has built rock chairs for a waterfront resting spot.

These projects and dozens of others surveyed in the show place the artists in a multi-disciplinary, utopian tradition started by the Bauhaus in Germany, de Stijl in the Netherlands and the Russian Avant-Garde. If nothing else, this presentation proves that optimism dies hard.

"The Artist as Social Designer," organized by Maurice Tuchman with the assistance of Maria de Herrera, is but one manifestation of "ArtEx: New Art/New Audiences," described as "a series of exhibitions, performances and events presenting current expressions in art intended specifically to reach an expanded audience."

Exhibitions include furniture by Donald Judd and Robert Venturi at Art Center College of Design (through April 4), UCLA's current shows of Judy Chicago's "Birth Project" and French contemporary sculpture (through April 7), Otis/Parsons' ongoing plan to install sculpture in MacArthur Park, and three recent shows: the Harrisons' plans for the Arroyo Seco (at Caltech's Baxter Art Gallery), Antonio Muntadas' video installation comparing shopping centers with museums (sponsored by USC Atelier at Santa Monica Place mall) and artists' proposals for sculpture (at Cal State Long Beach).

Other events under the "ArtEx" umbrella include a UCLA Extension symposium on "Intermedia Art--the Era of Interdisciplinary Collaboration," planned for May 12.

The purpose of "ArtEx" is laudable, but the enterprise has the look of a title attached to disconnected event rather than a cohesively developed assembly. UCLA's sculpture show, for example, is a misfit because it does nothing to reach beyond the usual museum audience. Otis/Parsons' park sculpture program is an idea in the works that can't be seen by the public.

Like other art collaborations that have sprawled across the Southland, "ArtEx" will probably have a greater impact on the cooperating institutions than on their audiences. There's very little to "prompt the regular audience of each institution to visit other galleries or museums," as organizers hope, because connections between events are slippery or nonexistent. A more serious problem is that documentation, proposals and ideas have outweighed the art on view in this first "ArtEx" presentation.

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