Copyright 1985 The New York Times Company 

The New York Times


November 9, 1985, Saturday, Late City Final Edition


SECTION: Section 1; Page 11, Column 1; Cultural Desk


By ALAN RIDING, Special to the New York Times


With 2,400 works by 700 artists from 46 countries occupying over two miles of corridors, the Sao Paulo biennial art exhibition has once again safeguarded its reputation as the largest single artistic event in Latin America.

But while its size is celebrated as a measure of its appeal to the sponsoring governments and individual artists, this also presents its organizers with the critical challenge of not overwhelming visitors. This year's 18th biennial, in the view of Brazilian critics, has acquitted itself well.

''It is purposefully spectacular,'' said Sheila Leirner, this year's curator. ''It hasn't been designed just for those who understand art. It's meant to be enjoyed - and it is. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing people walking around with smiles on their faces.''

The public has also responded in numbers, thanks partly to extensive press coverage, but also to the encouragement given to local schools to bring along their pupils. With the show open for 10 weeks, until Dec. 15, attendance is now expected easily to surpass the organizers' original forecast of 200,000 visitors.

A thorough visit takes at least eight hours, but the show has been broken down into a dozen or so exhibits that can be seen separately. If they are viewed together, however, the biennial forms a broad mozaic of contemporary art, including installations, neo-Expressionism, video art and the technical art shown in the special exhibit, ''Between Science and Fiction.''


Past and Present Represented

''Each part of the biennial has a reason to exist and each is linked to the other,'' Miss Leirner explained. ''The principal objective is to show our present, but to do so we also need a historical nucleus that provides the link from past to present.''

That ''historical'' role is played not only by turn-of-the-century Austrian postcards, 1930's Paraguayan and Brazilian engravings and traditional Bolivian masks, but also by works of the Paris-based Cobra Group from the 1950's, by a special exhibit of Brazilian Expressionism and by a number of established names, among them the late Wilfredo Lam from Cuba and Fernando Botero from Colombia.

The decision to stay away from the traditional format of country exhibits - the break came before the last biennial - has also enabled the event to serve as a more accurate mirror of ''universal'' art trends rather than as a stage for cultural propaganda by participating governments that nonetheless still decide whom they sponsor.

In 1983, arguing that its exhibit could not be broken up, the United States withdrew from the event. This year, it also turned down 43 artists suggested by Miss Leirner on the ground that their works were either unavailable or too expensive to transport. ''In the end, I proposed that the United States pay only their air fares and send artists who could make installations on the spot with local material,'' she said.


Centerpiece Is 'Great Canvas'

The results have been applauded. Terry Allen, 42 years old, a California-based multimedia artist, constructed what he named ''Stations: Secreto Engel.'' Paul Thek, a 51-year-old New Yorker, created ''Noah's Raft: A Peace Procession.'' And, using wooden slates, Edward Mayer, 43, currently residing in Albany, constructed ''Ultima Thule.'' Jonathan Borofsky and Ellen Lampert, who came as special guests of the biennial, also brought installations.

But the centerpiece as well as the most controversial part of the biennial is a 300-yard-long ''Great Canvas,'' made up of tightly packed paintings by dozens of neo-Expressionist artists, including Jiri Dokoupil of West Germany, Rob Scholte of the Netherlands and Paula Rego of Britain.

Some artists protested that works 30 feet long could not be appreciated in a corridor 15 feet wide. One of them, Bernd Koberling of West Germany, even removed two of his seven paintings to provide ''space'' on either side of his exhibit. But Miss Leirner defended her decision, arguing that ''a disturbing space, an area of turbulence'' harmonized with the biennial's new critical spirit.


GRAPHIC: Photo of visiors touring the Sao Paulo exhibit (NYT/Alan Rriding)