New York — Striking evidence of a fascinating and widespread civilization of Little People is coming to light throughout the world. Their existence was first noted in New York's Lower East Side shortly after 1970, when remnants of their tiny communities were found lodged in nooks and crannies of decaying tenements, occupying corners of vacant lots, or settling precariously into the crumbling masonry and windowsills of abandoned business establishments.
No one except neighborhood residents and a few local artists paid much attention at first to these adobe-like structures, but gradually their presence was made known to a few uptown specialists.
The art world in particular became interested because of the novelty and quality of this civilization's architecture, and before long galleries and museums were exhibiting examples of what these Little People had built.
The Guggenheim Museum here is currently hosting a selection of these miniature structures, as well as a huge clay construction that records the destruction of a Little People community by what appears to have been a volcanic eruption. This whorl-shaped construction is 26 feet in diameter and almost 10 feet high, and shows the devastating effect the eruption had upon the various tiny buildings that stood in its way.
Rumor has it that all these sites and structures actually are the work of sculptor Charles Simonds, and that he both invented the Little People and created their complex social patterns and philosophical ideas. It is true that he has written an essay on these people which he, however, insists are ''Fragments of Notes Recovered from a Traveler.''
In these ''Notes,'' we read about three distinct Little People cultures, one of which ''believed in a world entirely created by their own wills, in which nature's realities were of little concern. Their dwelling formed an ascending spiral - with the past, constantly buried, serving as a building material for the future. . . . As the dwelling grew higher and higher, it buried the cultivatable land. . . . Their goal was to achieve both the greatest possible height and to predict the very moment of collapse, the moment when the last of their resources would be consumed and their death inevitable. . . . After a collapse survivors would begin anew, tracing out a tremendous spiral on the earth's surface.''
We may never know the full story of the Little People - or even if they actually existed. The evidence of their civilization is very convincing, but then, so is the evidence that they are the products of Charles Simond's imagination.
He is always present when new Little People discoveries are made, or when sites and structures previously found are once again shown to the public. Whenever anything new about the Little People is revealed or announced, there one will find Charles Simonds. It does look suspicious, one has to admit.
Be that as it may, this exhibition is both great fun and very charming. I was particularly intrigued by the series of 12 landscape sculptures, ''Circles and Towers Growing,'' and the three sculptures that comprise ''House Plants.'' The former traces the evolution of the world of the Little People from a parched, barren plain through the construction and destruction of architectural complexes. And the latter depicts odd fusions of plant, architectural, and anatomical forms.
Everything is in miniature, and is exquisitely made of clay combined with such things as sand, pebbles, sticks, bones, and shells. Every brick is individually defined, and all other details are consistent and impressive enough to convince me of at least the possibilitym that the Little People really existed - or still do exist.
I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition, and am grateful to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for organizing it originally. It is scheduled to remain on view at the Guggenheim Museum through Oct. 30.