SO CLEVER was the Container Corporation of America with its ads from 1937 to 1982 that one is hard pressed to tell what it was selling.

The company's innovative approach was to commission not commercial artists, but the likes of Larry Rivers, Mark Tobey, Miguel Covarrubias, Ren,e Magritte, Stuart Davis and Ben Shahn to take a stab at selling its paperboard products by ignoring them. The artists would focus on ideas instead.

The resulting collection of 311 paintings, sculptures, drawings and collages was donated to the Museum of American Art this year. About half of it is now on display there in "Art, Design, and the Modern Corporation."

The Container Corporation aimed to associate itself in the public mind with what was good, artistic, uplifting, democratic and progressive -- much in the way that companies lately have taken t lending their financial support, and hence, their name, to art exhibits.

It is not a show that can be enjoyed without reading the labels. This is so because the bulk of the Container ads dealt with Great Ideas. Interpreting quotations by history's Great Thinkers, some of the art is self-conscious and trite, as if the commission constrained the artist and robbed him of spontaneity.

Often the best ideas inspired the most exciting art. Magritte expressed Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" by painting a small orange parlor chair sitting on an enormous stone proto-chair. Jose Luis Cuevas drew a man with vacant eyes, sinister mouth and angry body for Nietzsche's "Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful."

A challenging quotation brings a unique response. In his "Essays on a Science of Mythology," Carl Jung wrote the brief dialogue: "What can I do?" "Become what you have always been." Roy Dean De Forest came back with an amorphic wall sculpture, a fantastic blue-and-green landscape topped with farm animals looking up.

In Robert Vickrey's painting, an ornate suit of armor bears the mark of surrrender, an indentation in its left breastplate. The armor is paired with the words of Victor Hugo, "Nothing else in the world . . . not all the armies . . . is so powerful as an idea whose time has come."

For example, the idea of hidden persuaders in advertising.