A kind of sculptural crash course peps up summer browsing

SUMMER gallery exhibitions tend to be a bore, with too many repeat showings of work that didn't sell during the regular season and not enough art of substance to grab one's attention during the long, hot days of July and August. As always, there are exceptions, and an excellent one can be found at the Pace Gallery here. It consists of two parts: a selection of large-scale, museum-quality sculptures by nine highly successful and important contemporary artists, and a group of 19 colorful collages by Joseph Cornell.

Both shows are impressive, the first because it encapsulates so much of what was and is best in post-World War II and late 20th-century sculpture, and the second because it includes a number of Cornell's more intriguing images.

The sculpture display could actually serve as a mini crash course in recent three-dimensional art for anyone not familiar with what has occurred in this area over the past three or four decades. To begin with, there's a splendid standing mobile by Alexander Calder. Executed in 1947, and strategically placed within its own enclosure, ``Laoco"on'' not only underscores the wit and originality of Calder's delightful creations, but their ability to more than hold their own in the company of works much larger and more aggressive.

``Laoco"on'' does very well, for instance, near a huge, bulky piece by Richard Serra, and isn't the slightest bit intimidated by the monumental 1969 ``Chien de guet'' of Jean Dubuffet only a few feet away. If anything, the latter appears just a mite overblown and tentative in this company, especially as it also rubs shoulders with two of Louise Nevelson's finer constructions, ``Nocturnal Symphony,'' a very large, all-black sculpture the artist made in 1986, and ``Dawn's Landscape XXIV,'' a white wall-piece of 1975.

For sheer visual impact, however, nothing else on view quite matches David Smith's ``Voltri-Bolton'' of 1962, one of his most lyrical and accessible inventions. Its flat metal shapes rise upward with the greatest ease, and with a degree of elegance not encountered in most of his other larger works.

Nestled near its base is Isamu Noguchi's 1962 ``Floor or Frame,'' to my mind one of his less successful sculptures, but still far superior to John Chamberlain's typical crushed-metal object (I hesitate to dignify it by identifying it as sculpture), hanging nearby.

And finally, rounding out the exhibition with just the right note of authority and imagination are Lucas Samara's construction, ``Stiff Box No. 13'' of 1971, and Tony Smith's simple but powerful ``Gracehoper'' of 1961. At the Pace Gallery, 32 East 57th Street, through Sept. 16.

Theodore Wolff writes on art for the Monitor.

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