Despite recent differences over artistic freedom, U.S. and Chinese officials signed a new cultural exchange agreement today expanding the kind and number of artists who will visit each other's countries.

The new accord covering 1982 and 1983 allows performers for the first time to set up workshops in the host country and provides for the first exchange of television films and film makers.

U.S. International Communication Agency Director Charles Z. Wick and his Chinese counterpart, in toasts at the signing, lauded the accord as a bridge over cultural differences.

Neither official directly referred to political differences arising from the first official exhibition here of American art, which opened Tuesday and has drawn huge crowds.

Four days before the scheduled opening, Chinese exhibition officials demanded that 13 abstracts be withdrawn from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection of 70 paintings spanning 250 years.

Officials warned that the show would be "postponed" if the Americans refused to pull out the modern works by such masters as Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler and Franz Kline.

"The Chinese said the people just wouldn't understand them," an American official said.

When the Americans remained adamant that the entire collection be shown, the issue was dropped until the day before the opening. The show would go on, said the Chinese, but its opening would be postponed one hour.

This brief cultural confrontation appears to have been sharpened by the increasingly conservative political trend in China. A few days before the art show from Boston, top officials renewed attacks against "bourgeois liberalism," which in Chinese parlance means unbridled freedom of expression.

At the exhibition opening, Huang Zhen, minister of cultural relations with foreign countries, subtly disparaged the abstract works -- an almost unheard of genre in orthodox Chinese painting.

"The majority of these works are realistic and excellent and we can learn a great deal from them," he said in his welcoming speech. "As for a few cases, I am sure that those who have come to see the exhibit will look on them objectively as an artistic trend and another school of painting in the present-day American society."

Huang also was restrained today in his toast to celebrate the new cultural accord, calling it "an important and significant work that will further promote the friendship and cooperation between China and the United States."

Wick, who came to open the Boston show and sign the new agreement, avoided direct reference to the exhibition flap but underscored the American position in his toast.

"Under our democratic processes," he said, "we have freedom of expression in art, in literature, in the various sciences, which I know are the hallmarks of that which you aspire to."

Wick then handed Huang a gift of a picture book illustrating President Reagan's inauguration, an event the ICA chief described as "a great symbol . . . of our democratic process where, without a shot being fired, without any pressures of any kind, the voice of the people through the free ballot box had the exchange of the most prestigious, largest, maximum machine of weaponry and political democracy in the world, and that is what we wish you."

Before joining the Reagan administration, Wick was Los Angeles investor and Republican Party supporter.

The new accord includes most of the provisions contained in the first Sino-American cultural exchange agreement signed in 1979 after the two countries normalized relations. It calls for exchanges of sports teams, official cultural delegations, journalists, scholars, students, performers and artists.

The 1979 accord has brought hundreds of official American shows, sportsmen and celebrities to China, ranging from an American Indian cultural artifact exhibit to an Ice Capades featuring Dorothy Hamill and Jo Jo Starbuck. The visitors have included college presidents, a Babe Ruth youth baseball team and the Houston ballet.

New provisions include permission for performers to give demonstrations at workshops and for musicians, dancers, painters, sculptors and craftsmen to go to each other's countries for "short-term lectures."

The agreement did nothing to resolve complaints of American social scientists that the Chinese are too restrictive in parceling out field work. Earlier this year, the Chinese began limiting on-site research to three weeks for foreign sociologists and anthropologists.

American scholars say they need at least six months to compile meaningful findings and they point out that Chinese scholars in the United States enjoy complete freedom to do their research.

Wick said he took up the problems of American social scientists in discussions with Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping and the vice minister of education. He said he was told that "their society has been closed for so long that this whole revolution of openness is new" and that it is difficult to get "certain segments of society" to adjust to the new policy.

"I made a very strong point, which I think they understood," said Wick, "that American public opinion abhors an imbalance related to reciprocity and therefore it would be in their interest to address themselves to the problem."