America's new art has been widely shown in Europe, but the reverse has not been true. It is time that we reciprocate, and the touring exhibition of new European art that goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is an attempt to do just that...

But it is not much to look at. It offers little to the mind, and less to the eye. "Europe in the '70s: Aspects of Recent Art" is an often thin and sometimes infuriating show.

Those Americans who turn to Europe for that which we lack, for old monuments and masterworks and the rich continuum of the Great Tradition, will find all that rejected by many of the lesser artists in this show.

Few of them can paint, or want to. Instead, they show us photographs, documents and words. There is something painfully familiar in this show. Many of the 23 artists chosen for inclusion are working in the most arid, airless regions of the so-called avantgarde.

Where they lead few will follow. These minimalists, conceptualists, latter-day Duchampians and self-indulgent scribblers are still chasing what one art wag describes as "the post-new."

Many of these artists, a Hirshorn handout tells us, make works "with no claim to permanence. Likewise, many of the artists in this exhibition have questeioned esthetic quality as a necessary component of art work. The notion of the precious and stylish object of art . . . and the treasured assumption of traditional esthetics as "the study or philosophy of beauty' have both been abandoned."

When artists reject "permanence", "esthetic quality," and "beauty," to say nothing of the past, what is left is the thin gruel that one finds in this show.

Italy's Giulio Paolini, for instance, fakes the signatures of his betters - Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella - and hangs them on the wall. Germany's Hanne Darboven has filled 245 pages of white paper with numbers and with scribbles. The Netherlands' Stanley Brown shows narrow strips of paper on which he's drawn one line. The titles that he gives his work - "1 step 1:1, on one 1:1" or "100 steps 1:1000, on 1m 1:1" - are no doubt descriptive. The Hirshhorn notes that "Brouwn adds up his footsteps . . . or he measures the length of his stride" - as if the viewer cares.

Brouwn's installation seems designed to baffle and confuse the viewer, as do the obfuscating essays in the exhibition catalogue. "Brouwn's role," write B.H.D. Buchloh, "is to anticipate in his dialogical art the forthcoming and forward-looking, self-conscious subject which is projecting its own self-determined future." Even on second reading, it doesn't clear the murk.

Italy's Giovanni Anselmo is represented by a work that is not confusing, only simpleminded. He has filled a gallery with slide projectors beaming the word particolare (Italian for "detail") on doorjambs, moldings and on other details of the wall. "Anselmo," says a Hirshborn wall label, "states a profound but simple truth - that everything is a detail of something else."

So much of the art on view is bleak and stripped and empty that the viewer, like a drowning man, fastens with relief to those works on view that evoke the outside world Richard Long, for instance, works in the tradition of England's landscape art. Sometimes he makes sculptures, sometimes he makes documents of his illustrated maps, long and pleasing walks. One of his drawings on display here records such a journey from Bootle in the Midlands to Haunton, Clifton Campville, and on to No Man's Heath. There is more poetry in those place names than in many of the works included in the show.

England's Hamish Fulton also walks the landscape, and takes photographs as he walks. The beauty of his pictures justifies their presence here, but that cannot be said of those of Victor Burgin, the English ideologist, who photographs the working class and then adds to his pictures quotes from ads and Marx.

Italy's Niele Toroni paints squarish spots of paper. His spots are always 30 cm apart. Instead of squarish spots, Daniel Buren shows us stripes each exactly 8.7 cm wide.

When this exhibition opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, Buren glued his stripes to the risers of the museum's formal staircase. here they are displayed like bed sheets hung as banners from the flagpoles in the Hirshhorn's central court.

The most impressive pieces here are those that evoke something beyond the confines of the show. The late Marcel Broodthaers is represented here by a mysterious installation of palmtrees, television screens and 19th-century prints. The camels and the peacocks, elephants and humble bees, plants and folding chairs that Broothaers has assembled shimmer in the memory once one has left the show.

Belgium's Panamarenko displays a "Propellerless pedal-driven pure jet aircraft" that, at least, evokes a smile. Italy's Gilberto Zorio has pinned a huge glass star to the wall with metal javelins, and his countryman Mario Merz has built an igloo made of tubing sheets of glass and neon light for the exhibit. These are among the most suggestive objects in the show.

Perhaps this exhibitions does its artists a disservice. If we saw their work in depth, perhaps we would respect it more than we do here.

"Europe in the '70s: Aspect of Recent Art" was organized by James Speyer and Anne Rorimer of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the credit, or the blame, for its academic bloodlessness no doubt rests with them.

Europe still boasts painters, and artists who have not rejected esthetic quality or beauty. A few of them - Long, Broodthaers, Fulton, Merz, and perhaps Zorio - have slipped into this exhibition. The others, too, deserve exposure in American museums, but they will have to wait for another show. This one closes at the Hirshhorn on May 7 and then goes on to San Francisco, Fort Worth and Cincinnati.