What's new in art?

A lot, or so it seems from "New Ways with Paper," the latest show at the National Collection of Fine Arts, which pinpoints what experts are calling a "paper revolution."

There was a time when artists simply drew, printed or painted on paper: No more. They now tear cut, crease, fold, sew and collage it; they dye, mold, cast and hand-shape it, embedding objects therein; and increasingly, they make paper themselves. As a result, the old distinctions between prints, drawings, crafts, painting and sculpture are no longer easily made.

"While beautifully produced editions of prints will undoubtedly continue," says NCFA curator Janet Flint, "many artists have now moved onward a more personal involvement and direct control over their art, and unique, rather than mass-produced work is the order of the day. Even in published editions, such as those by William Weege, the works grow and change as the artist adds colors and textures - stitches and othewise manipulates the paper."

Weege's most recent sculptural experiments with paper embedded with fring and color can be seen in greater depth at the Diane Brown Gallery, 2028 P St. NW, and they are discinating. Sam Gilliam, who is also represented in the NCFA show, has made a whole new group of small pushed and stiffened paper pieces, just arrived at Fendrick Gallery, 3059 W. St. NW, that look like mini Gilliam "drape" paintings.

Tom Dineen and Hilda Thorpe are two more Washington artists represented in the NCFA show Thorpe also is in evidence at the Plum Gallery in Kensington. She will have an open studio ofher own today from noon to 8 p.m. at 105 S. Lee St., Alexandria.

The other 60 artists in the show range from art world superstars such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to lesser-known but highly engaging newcomers. Earliest are the innovators, deep-bite etcher Stanley William Hayter, and Michael Ponce de Leon, who made deeply embossed prints from molded and cast paper back in the '50s.

Red Grooms' wonderful folded paper portrait of Gertrude Stein also is here, along with Howardena Pindell's collage construction made from thousands of tiny punched paper circles. As Flint points out, "The scope and range of possibilities for work in paper seems as limitless as the artists' imagination. "Happily, there seems to be a lot that around these days.

Speaking of imagination, even once in a while an artist turns up who seems to have a corner on the market. Such an artist is Barton Lidice Benes, 35, whose first one-man show in Washington is currently at Fendrick Gallery. His show might well be called "New Ways With Everything," for nothing he does seems ever to have been thought of before.

For example, there are some early sculptural objects having to do with literary matters. One, called "Trashy Novel" is actually a trashy novel that the artist has stuffed with real trash and painted wth glue and gesso. Then there are 12 other pieces grouped under the title "The Art of Writing," including a deformed pencil called "Twisted Story," an overinflated pencil for the overinflated writer on your Christmas list and another pencil that writes and erases at the same time.

But this is only marginalia. Apart from building things like a huge. Tai Mahal-like shell-encrusted castle for four live hermit crabs, Benes' first love is words - particularly those of his 70-year-old Aunt Evelyn, who lives in Florida and writes him two 50-page, single-spaced typewritten letters each week; he responds in 15 pages, single spaced. Benes admits it is a form of therapy for both of them, and he has quoted liberally and exclusively from his intimate communications from her, on objects like rolling pins, on handkerchiefs and now on larger and larger wall pieces that consist wholly of her words, all rubber stamped by hand - letter by letter.

The most engaging new works in this show, however, are his "charts," drawings based on a grid, each square of which is filled with some meaningful tidbit. In '77 Nasty Stains," for example, each square is smeared with everything (and I mean everything) taco sauce to ear wax. In "Wax Museum," the 140 squares encase Pearl Meyer's gallstone (Pearl Meyer, he explains, is his mother's friend) and part of a dollar bill that was given to him and collector of Benes' work - as are Merece Cunningham and Peter Fonda. Another chart, called "Roach Delight," turns out to have $35 worth of marijuana glued to it, along with dozens of butts, or "roaches" - all dated with their time of use.

"Things are just starting to come together for me," says Benes. He has just received an artist's grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, a good investment if there ever was one.

From a very different mold is Peter Rockwell, carver of marble and caster of bronze. He was in from Rome last week to open his show of sculpture at Mickelson's, 709 G ST. NW. Rockwell already is represent in several private Washington collections, as well as by four charming gargoyles at the Washington Cathedral.

Now in his 40's, Rockwell is the son of artist Norman Rockwell of Stockbridge, Mass. and has, in his work gone a very different route from his famous father. Peter Rockwell's bronzes, tend toward realism, but it is a generalized, simplified realism that is concerned chiefly with movement - dancers, tumblers, acrobats and swimmers.

This concern is best expressed here by a marvelous group of tumblers, each figure of which can be turned to stand in different positions - even upon the head of another. The animation he achieves, despite the implicit solidity and immobility of his chosen media, is the most powerful aspect of his work.

Ralston Crawford, now 73, is both old and new to the American art scene, and he might he called a formerly-famous artist whose time of rediscovery is at hand. The first phase of the revival is current underway at Middendort-Lane, 2014 P St. NW.

A first-generation American abstract painter who doesn't like being categorized as either precisionist or American cubist, Crawford is undeniably a bit of both; and his paintings, like it or not, recall Stuart Davis and Charles Demuth. This show does not pretend to be retrospective (though one is due, perhaps at the Hirshhorn, which owns dozens of his works), but there are included some fine watercolors, a small, strong abstract painting from the '40s and, best of all, some superb and reasonably priced lithographs from the '40s and '50s that must soon join the ranks of early-20th-century American prints now currently so muct in demand.

Anyone who can't bear to part with the glow of Christmas lights at the end of the holidays might seriously consider the work of Jerry Noe, now glowing at the Henri Gallery, 1500 21st St. NW. No makes neon light sculpture, sometimes combined with other materials, such as the lighthearted "Landscape With Rainbow," in which a neon rainbow begins and ends in a pile of sand. The more enduring work, however, consists simply of draped, thin tubes of subtly colored neon light that hang in groups upon the wall - casting a warm and soothing glow.

Last week's survey of art of Christmas covered many sources for prints and other reasonably priced works, but there are many more; and they are probably closer to home than the shopping mall. In Kensington, Plum Gallery has small works by gallery artists, including Jonathan Meader: in Bethesda, Lorenz, Gallery has prints by Miro and Dali as well as local artists. In Alexandria, Gallery 4 and Wolfe Street & Gallery top a long list. The Old Print Gallery in Georgetown has subject matter to suit everyone.

Incidentally, Gallery Kormendy at 608 N. Washington St., Alexandria, run by the Archdiocese of Washington, has many works of art with spirtual or religious content, including jewelry and tapestries by artists represented in the Vatican art collections. Also os spiritual as well as artistic interest are the religious paintings of black American expatriate Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937) on view through Jan. 11 at the Howard University Art Gallery.

Other items of interest include:

Rarely seen landscape paintings by illustrator Rockwell Kent at Frasers' Stable Gallery, rear 1901 S St. NW.

Open house today and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. at the "M" St. Studio Gallery 3062 M St. NW, where artists Allen O. Appel, Alan Bridge, Vanessa Guerin, Jim Sundquist Sandy Sempliner and Todd Miner work and sell. A "Stocking Stuffer" wall has some wonderful Appel collages, and Bridge's "Mortality Machines" make the flight of stairs worthwide.

Photography dealer Kathleen Ewing will have open house today and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. at 3615 Ordway St. NW to show new work by Mark power, Steve Szabo and Gail Skoff.