St. Louis — Michelangelo and the other sculptors of the Renaissance would almost certainly not have understood the monumental public sculpture created by Saunders Schultz and William Severson here.
Huge, generally outdoor ''abstract'' works made of such materials and devices as stainless or Cor-Ten steel, acrylic, and bronze tubing - with strobe lights possibly powered by wind or by solar or photovoltaic systems - would have confused them. And neither would they have understood why such corporate giants as Phillips Petroleum, Monsanto, J.C. Penney, and Ralston Purina would commission them.
Styles and times change, however. Art - which for most of this century had been viewed by American businessmen as a playground for fuzzy-minded romantics and wild-eyed revolutionaries - is once again respectable. Banks, hotels, industrial companies, insurance companies, and mercantile centers feel the need for it. And it only makes sense that the art commissioned by such institutions should reflect today's forms and styles rather than those of the distant or academic past.
That is the position Schultz and Severson have held for the 20 or so years they have worked together. During that period, Scopia - as their firm a few miles from here is known - has produced numerous dramatically modern public sculptures. (Or, as the artists prefer to describe them, ''private works in public places.'') These can be found gracing corporate headquarters, parks, museum entrances, banks, hotels, and many other public places throughout the United States.
Clients, professional colleagues, and the general public have responded favorably. Corporate executives appreciate the manner in which Scopia's creations are not only visually pleasing, but also interpretive of their companies' products and activities. Architects and landscape architects are impressed by how well the works complement - and are complemented by - their architectural settings. And Donald E. Lasater, chairman of the board of Mercantile Trust, St. Louis - while commenting on a two-story, 1,700-cubic-foot sculpture in mirror-finished stainless steel executed by Severson and Schultz - added: ''We have not had one critical comment concerning 'Synergism' (title of the sculpture). St. Louis is relatively deserted at night and the sculpture is vulnerable to vandalism, but we have not had a single repair to make to erase a defacing to this beautiful sculpture.''
Without question, Scopia puts out a good product - witness its successful collaboration with 8 of Fortune magazine's top 65 industrial companies and 9 of its top 50 nonindustrial companies. On that level, quality is expected, and quality is what the client gets.
The client, however, may only have a very general idea of what he wants. A new regional headquarters might need a humanizing touch to soften the severity of the architecture; a downtown bank plaza may have to be enlivened by something eye-catching and thought-provoking; or the client may feel he needs a work to encapsulate what his company represents or aspires to.
Whatever it is, the sculptors at Scopia are ready and able to make suggestions and help clarify precisely what the client wants. In the process, they may read his literature, tour the company's facilities, interview staff members, and consult with engineers and architects. Once the ideas begin to crystallize, they set to work on sketches and models, always keeping in mind that theirs is a collaborative project requiring continual discussion, feedback, and final approval.
Unlike most sculptors, who personalize a small number of forms and then repeat or modify them slightly throughout their careers, Schultz and Severson prefer to let a proposed work's site and purpose suggest the form it will take. As a result, every piece is unlike any other except in the quality of the execution and the care with which the most perfect formal solution was sought. ''Imex,'' for instance, is a 20-foot, 9,000-pound, stainless-steel symmetrical sculpture standing on a 51/2-by-51/2-inch base. ''Folium,'' on the other hand, is a 24-foot-high, 58-foot-long loop-shaped sculpture distinguished by the fact that 200 gallons of water is shot up and over its interior folium form each minute. And the recently completed ''Hora Novem'' is a circular solar-noon-marker and fountain designed to reveal the autumnal and vernal equinox.
All are very different, and yet every one is exquisitely crafted and evidences great care for the various clients' individualized - and occasionally very difficult - needs and demands.
It is precisely this concern for their clients' best interests that distinguishes the work of Severson and Schultz from that of most public sculptors. A commission for them is not merely an excuse to sell another variant of an already successful and heavily exhibited work, but a genuine challenge to all they believe. Severson says, ''What stimulates and drives us endlessly is the desire to create art that energizes an environment. Long ago I was thrilled to the challenge of the artist actively engaged in the throes of society.''
What is truly remarkable is the degree to which major corporations and other businesses have also responded to that challenge and have committed considerable time and money to the creation of significant contemporary art. Although some of that may merely be an indication that modern art is now fashionable on office walls, it also reflects a genuine desire on the part of at least some executives to bring the challenge and the beauty of art into working environments that tend too often to be uninspiring and even somewhat deadly.