The ongoing relationship between the Guggenheim Museum here and Exxon Corporation is valuable if for no other reason than that it has produced a number of the past decade's more interesting and controversial surveys of emerging art. There have been eight such exhibitions in all - four devoted to newer American art and four to work from Britain, Italy, Australia, and France. Most were organized by members of the Guggenheim's curatorial staff, who made their final selections after extended trips throughout the United States or to the participating countries. In every case, they limited themselves to only a few artists (the 1981 exhibition, with 19 Americans, was the largest) and to those they felt best represented what was most significant.
Now, to pinpoint what these exhibitions accomplished, the Guggenheim has assembled examples by 51 of the 85 artists originally introduced to the public through this series.
``Emerging Artists 1978-1986: Selections From the Exxon Series'' consists of 60 of the paintings, sculptures, photographs, conceptual pieces, and works on paper that were purchased for the museum's collection when first shown. They were chosen by exhibition curator Diane Waldman, who organized four of the earlier Exxon shows.
Mounting such a varied assemblage of recently new and still often difficult works involves considerable risk, for it will be seen, at least by some, as a kind of score card on how perceptive were the four curators and the museum that backed their choices.
Seen in that light, it is interesting to note that while a few of the 85 artists originally shown have dropped from sight, many have achieved some measure of success, and two - Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi - have gone on to become art-world superstars.
The 1982 exhibition, ``Italian Art Now,'' which featured both Chia and Cucchi (as well as Nino Longobardi, Giuseppe Penone, Vettor Pisani, and two others), made many Americans aware of just how influential and widespread European Neo-Expressionism was becoming. For that reason alone, it is now remembered as the most important show of the series and the one that produced the least contention among art professionals.
Others, however, did not fare as well. Both the ``British Art Now'' (1980) and ``French Art Today'' (1986) drew considerable criticism for what was perceived as the narrowness of their respective curators' choices. Looking back, I remember liking most of what was included in the former and being somewhat appalled by what I found in the latter.
In fact, I recall seeing nine of the 10 French artists seated together during the show's press preview and asking myself, ``Are these today's major exponents of the great French tradition that produced C'ezanne, Monet, Lautrec, Braque, and so many others?''
I decided, if they were, it was no cause for celebration, since most of their works could only be described as minor, or even trivial.
Of the other exhibitions, I missed ``Young American Artists'' (1978); responded favorably, overall, to independent curator Peter Frank's ``19 Emergent Americans'' (1981); found ``New Perspectives in American Art'' (1983) shockingly limited in scope; was impressed by the vitality exhibited by several of the artists in ``Australian Visions'' (1984); and liked much of what I saw in ``New Horizons in American Art'' (1985), even though I felt that Lisa Dennison's choices, while generally good, were a bit too prescribed by her own sensibilities.
Almost everything on view this time looks both familiar and somewhat different. Most important, however, nothing has gained in stature or impact. With a few exceptions, what I saw appears to have diminished, if anything, in both interest and significance since my first encounter with it.
The Italians, I'm afraid, come off the worst. Both Cucchi's 1981-82 ``The Mad Painter'' and Longobardi's 1980 ``Untitled'' are awful paintings, no matter how one looks at them. The fact that Cucchi's more recent work is often quite astonishing and that Longobardi appears to have wit, talent, and imagination going for him makes these pictures - and their inclusion in this survey - all the more disappointing. Next to them, even Pisani's minor variants on the Oedipus and Sphinx legend take on an aura of some significance.
Too many of the works, however, come across now as merely dull and boring - possibly because the ideas that lent them some measure of support when first exhibited are no longer relevant today.
Denise Green's ``To Draw One,'' for instance, looks vacuous from the distance of a decade, while John Nixon's ``Self Portrait'' (1984) hardly exists as an object, let alone a work of art.
By and large, the pieces that hold up best are among the least pretentious. These include Hugh O'Donnell's ``Palaestra'' (1979); Michael C. McMillen's ``A Circuit of Desire'' (1982); Bryan Hunt's ``King Crest'' (1976); Keith Milow's ``Third Cenotaph'' (1979); Anthony Gorny's ``Transitivity Volume I'' (1983-85); and Mark Innerst's tiny view of Brooklyn (1985). But if I could choose one to keep, it would be Susan Norrie's ``Deserted'' (1984).
At the Guggenheim Museum through Oct. 25.