REPORTED SIGHTINGS Art Chronicles, 1957-87 By John Ashbery Edited by David Bergman Knopf. 404 pp. $35 IN HIS introduction to this collection of the poet John Ashbery's workaday art writings in Paris and New York, David Bergman reports, with an air of puzzlement, that "Ashbery has treated his art writing not only secondarily but dismissively, and only after thirty years has he permitted it to be collected in book form." Ashbery knew what he was doing. He should never have allowed his lifetime's prudence to be unsettled by Bergman's importunings. The nouns in the title and subtitle are exactly correct for the vast majority of the ephemera here given permanent form. Ashbery wrote on art principally for the Paris Herald-Tribune, then, back in America, for New York magazine, ArtNews and Newsweek. The most important thing a writer is doing in all those publications, most particularly in the Trib, perhaps, is simply telling the reader what's going on and where. Ashbery manages this basic task with grace and efficiency and usually adds an opinion, or at least something that might grow into an opinion, something just about right for stimulating an exchange between two people sitting over a fine at a sidewalk cafe and wondering what to do with the afternoon. The book, at $35 a copy, is strictly for fanatical devotees of Ashbery's poetry who want every scrap from his typewriter that they can get. Bergman is the principal such fan, for he has read practically all of such material; the book, necessarily, is only a selection, selected moreover, to fit into 10 categories presumably drawn from the work. The order is likewise taken from the categories and skips around from later to earlier, from Paris to New York and back. There is no sense of a mind and an eye in steady growth, but perhaps there wouldn't have been anyway. Of one of the artists given a longer treatment, in ArtNews, Ashbery remarks, "What is seen seems to matter less than what is being done." This, of course, was the basic assumption of the whole critical celebration of Abstract Expressionism, all that new vocabulary about getting into the "arena" and "taking risks" and "making it new." "Action Painting" itself, if it means anything, means that the painter's action in painting the painting is what counts, not the painting except as a record of the heroic encounter. Ashbery accepts without question the view of American art history as developed by ArtNews before he got there. Thus: "They" (abstract artists in America between 1927 and 1944) "were under constant attack from the art establishment, which favored the agrarian social realism of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry." This would have come as news to those three artists, who were actually called "Regionalists" as opposed to those urban artists called "Social Realists." Benton, particularly, waged unremitting war against the art establishment, crying out raucously and not too politely about the exclusion of contemporary American artists from establishment exhibitions and collections. Interestingly enough, along with the Surrealists and the Abstractionists whom Ashbery sees as proto-Abstract Expressionists, Benton himself could be counted as such an ancestor, both in howling and yowling about getting those contemporary Americans in out of the hot sun and, more specifically, in teaching Jackson Pollock the freely swinging brush strokes and movements that characterize both the older painter and his younger one-time pupil. Needless to say, Ashbery does not so count that grand old man. Frank Getlein is a Washington art and drama critic.