THE ARTS : But Will the French Thank Us? : The American Center disappeared from Paris seven years ago. Now it's back with a $40-million, Frank Gehry-designed building, a full cultural schedule--and a decidedly Southern California feel

Scott Kraft is The Times' Paris bureau chief. Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.

Some years back, a French business student came to the American Center in Paris with an idea--just an idea--for a new play he wanted to direct. The head of the American Center, Henry Pillsbury, was skeptical. But the stage had an open slot, so he listened.

"I had been making the point to everyone that the American Center was going to be more professional," Pillsbury remembered recently with a laugh. "But this guy had that real intense look, that holy fire. And his idea was so funny and so ridiculous that I figured, 'Why not?' "

The student, Daniel Benoin, went on to become head of one of France's biggest regional theaters, in St. Etienne, and, not surprisingly, one of the American Center's most loyal French fans.

For most of six decades, that's the way things were at the American Center in Paris: spontaneous and uninhibited--even, sometimes, unedited. And open to all types of ideas.

But the private, nonprofit American Center disappeared from public sight seven years ago, closing its doors on the Left Bank, selling its building and laying plans for a grand new center across the Seine.

At first, the plans were severely threatened by a worldwide drop in private funding for the arts and the center's own overly ambitious program. A staff was hired, then fired for lack of money. A grand opening was planned and postponed. It was, as one official recently recalled, "a very painful period."

Now, though, the American Center is back on the Paris scene. It will reopen to the public on Wednesday with an energetic new team of trustees, a staff of 32, a program committee of volunteers drawn from the U.S. art world, an exciting though modest schedule of cultural events--and a decidedly Southern California feel.

The $40-million building, a seven-story marvel near the Gare de Lyon in east-central Paris, is the work of Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry. Frederick R. Weisman, the 82-year-old Los Angeles philanthropist, is responsible for the single largest contribution, of $5 million, to the center's operations endowment. And the inaugural exhibition is titled "Pure Beauty: Some Recent Work From Los Angeles."

"In thinking of where the pulse of contemporary culture is today, it seemed appropriate for a group of strong and emerging artists in Los Angeles to open the space," said Madeleine Grynsztejn, an associate curator of 20th-Century art at the Art Institute of Chicago and member of the American Center's program committee.

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The new American Center, like the old one, is being welcomed by le tout Paris, the French government and even a cultural Establishment that has frequently expressed annoyance with other American imports, from Coca-Cola to "Jurassic Park."

"We really welcome and greatly anticipate the reopening because of the importance of the center on a cultural level but also because of the architecture of the building itself," said Emmanuel de Roux, deputy cultural editor of the influential Parisian daily newspaper Le Monde.

"Everyone regretted it when the old center closed," he added. "So many new, creative things were happening there. And it was a way for the French to discover American art and artists."

"Pure Beauty," which will run until Aug. 15, was organized by Ann Goldstein, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It will introduce the work of seven artists, all in their early 30s--Richard Hawkins, T. Kelly Mason, Jorge Pardo, Sarah Seager, Thaddeus Strode, Diana Thater and Pae White.

Goldstein was one of several curators invited to submit proposals for the center's opening season under a "youth culture" theme. The title "Pure Beauty" is taken from a 1967-68 painting by Los Angeles-based artist John Baldessari, who hired a sign painter to brush those words onto a canvas in what is now considered a seminal work of art.

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In the center's vast, airy visual arts gallery, the California artists will show a similar irreverence for aesthetic purity, finding beauty--or at least visual interest--in everyday objects and ordinary experiences. Debunking the concept of art-as-precious-object and adopting a less worshipful attitude, they revel in mundane home and office furnishings, decorative fashions, magazine illustrations and the lives of anonymous people.

While each artist's work is distinctive, they share an interest in popular culture and engage in art as a personal occupation, Goldstein said.

Henry Pillsbury, the 57-year-old executive director who has been associated with the American Center for 29 years, acknowledges that, at first, he resisted the selection of "Pure Beauty." But he came around after talking with architect Gehry, who is 65.

"Henry," Pillsbury remembers Gehry telling him with a shrug, "it's what the kids are doing today."

And, as Pillsbury noted recently, European impressions of the United States in recent years have been increasingly shaped by the West Coast. The choice of "Pure Beauty," like the selection of Gehry, "is an emphatic indication that the revitalized center intends to expose the broad measure of American culture," Pillsbury said.

Frederick B. Henry, president of the New York-based Bohen Foundation and co-chairman of the American Center's board of trustees, said the exhibition "puts us ahead of the wave--this is what a significant group of artists from a very important region are doing today."

(After the showing in Paris, "Pure Beauty" goes to Los Angeles, where it will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art from Sept. 25 through Jan. 8.)

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The show is part of a full schedule of American Center programs for the year. Among other inaugural offerings here will be "Stations," a video and sound exhibition by Bill Viola, an internationally known video artist who lives in Long Beach. His five-channel color video and sound presentation, on view through Dec. 31, focuses on images of the human body submerged in water.

And, in the center's atrium, Nam June Paik, the Korean-born American media artist, is presenting two free-standing, 10-foot-tall video sculptures made out of vintage televisions, also through Dec. 31. The work, "David & Marat," was inspired by Jacques-Louis David's famous canvas "The Death of Marat."

Later in the year, center trustees plan "Banned in the U.S.A.," an exhibition of 24 once-censored films made since 1916, as well as a program of short films and videos titled "This Body, This Soul, This Brick, These Tears: Disorder Today." In November, a selection of John Cage's music will be presented by pianist Margaret Leng Tan, and writer Toni Morrison and composer Max Roach will present a collaborative work.

The center also plans a series of conferences, the first of which will discuss the globalization of American youth culture, particularly in the music recording industry. That will be followed by conferences on landscape architecture in urban parks and on the "memorialization" of war in France and the United States.

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When Gehry began designing the new American Center, Judith Pisar, an American who has lived in Paris for 20 years and is co-chairman of the center, told him that she wanted "a contemporary statement with some elegance."

And although French critics have yet to weigh in with their assessments, officials at the American Center are delighted with the result: a sand-colored building of French limestone that is uniquely American but also compatible with the surrounding Parisian cityscape.

"This building is a cross between playing the guitar and working the computer, between high technology and tradition," said Pillsbury, who worked closely with Gehry on the design.

Indeed, Gehry's graceful building, his first in Paris, is stuffed with show space. It has an intimate, 350-seat theater with a well-equipped proscenium stage, balcony and boxes along the side walls. There are two "black box" studios, a 100-seat movie theater and lecture hall and the tall visual arts gallery where "Pure Beauty" will open.

Two big studios have been set aside for visual and performing artists, and there also are classrooms, offices and apartments for visiting artists and scholars. Space also has been set aside for a bookstore and an American-style cafe.

The American Center, with its new park and plaza, was a key part of the French government's redevelopment plan for the Bercy district, in the 12th arrondissement , once home to factories and warehouses along the Seine.

Now, the neighborhood includes the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, a 17,000-seat pyramid-shaped building, and a large complex that houses research and office facilities for the wine industry and other agricultural industries. Public areas have been redesigned, and new low Parisian-style apartment buildings have been built.

The government is delighted to have its American cultural institution back in business. Despite the heated cross-Atlantic debates over American cultural imperialism, centering mostly on Hollywood films, the American Center has long had a special place in the hearts of the French.

Pisar, who has been associated with the center for years, recently received the Legion of Honor from the government in a ceremony attended by the present minister of culture and several of his predecessors.

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The objectives of the new American Center are numerous and diverse, as they have always been.

The center was founded in 1931 by American expatriates who hoped to keep their children from prowling the Paris cafes. It went through several sharp changes over the years, from a time when coats and ties were de rigueur to the days when drug deals were made in the halls and anti-Vietnam War slogans were painted on the walls.

At the old headquarters in Montparnasse on the Boulevard Raspail, it played host to such famous writers as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Styron, as well as artists including Jackson Pollock. And it gave opportunities for many important American dancers, composers, dramatists and performers, from Merce Cunningham and John Cage to Sam Shepard and Trisha Brown.

Throughout its history, the center was a haven for American art and experimental French art, a meeting place for American and French artists and a center for artistic as well as linguistic education.

However, the cultural relationship between the United States and France has changed in the past two decades. For one thing, artists and people interested in art on both sides of the Atlantic are more mobile these days. And Paris no longer needs an expatriates' club into which Americans can escape for a taste of home. The challenge for the new American Center will be to strengthen the cultural links between the Americans and the French.

"The old center was a place where you could feel American curiosity, the odd angle," said Rachel Newton Bellow, program officer for the arts and culture with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York, who has taken a leave to work with the center. "We're trying to re-create that aspect. We're not just a showcase for American work. We will highlight an American approach to culture."

Bellow and others believe the center also may be in a perfect position to offer a sense of universal American expression, something that has all but disappeared from the American arts scene.

"Everybody in America is interested in the specificity of their own ethnic origins and in ethnic expressions," Bellow said. "But at some point, universal expression is bound to reappear. And where do you achieve universal expression? The best place to mix it up is an international institution."

The new center, mindful of the overly ambitious plans that nearly destroyed it a few years ago, is being launched gradually. The original plan for a $1.5-million exhibition of commissioned art was shelved, for example, and replaced by programs with budgets averaging $250,000. A decision on offering English-language classes, as in the old center, will be made later.

The center's financial goal is an annual operating budget of $5 million to $8 million with an endowment of $25 million. About $9 million has been raised so far, but Pillsbury says that's enough for the gradual reopening.

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With that cautious beginning, Pillsbury hopes to recapture the spirit of the old place, which the French often called "une bouffee d'air frais" (a breath of fresh air). The early schedule of programs, from the exhibitions to the conferences, reflects a desire to showcase American art but also to highlight and strengthen the cross-Atlantic links.

"These days, there's almost more bull about how great the center was in the old days than I can stomach," said Pillsbury, who first joined the center as a theater director in the 1960s. "But it was a place in town where, systematically, there was a sense of unpredictability. It was unencumbered. It served a purpose in this country, and I think it will continue to serve a purpose."

Added Bellow: "It will take people like Henry, who were there, in the old spirit, to remind the American Center periodically not to take itself too seriously."

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