Artists have been making beautiful books since Irish monks set to work on the Book of Kells. In recent years, contemporary artists have begun to see new possibilities in books. They are seen not just as pages to illustrate or embellish, but as a whole new format, a new medium of expression for a post-minimal, conceptual generation of artists for whom traditional media such as painting and sculpture no longer suffice.

This new phenomenon - and it is a phenomenon - was previously examined here in two shows at Fendrick Gallery, and, in its international aspect, at the avant-garde "Documenta" exhibition in Germany last summer.

The curator of the "Documenta" show, Peter Frank, has now collaborated with Martha Wilson, founder of New York's Franklin Furnace - the first gallery to show artists' books exclusively - to produce a traveling exhibition called "Artists books, USA." The show, which just opened at the Washington Project for the Arts, 1227 G St. NW, will tour other cities under the auspices of Independent Curators Incorporated, after which, no doubt, the genre will proliferate even further.

The show touches on several aspects of the medium: small-edition printed books - some with words, some with pictures - by big names such as Les Krims, Claes Oldenburg, Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman; and handmade books, often with no words at all, which often extract sheer visual poetry from beautifully constructed handmade paper, best exemplified in Caroline Greenwald's "Coverless Book with Spine."

There are several notebooks - ring binders holding drawings or collages in series - such as Gloria Klein's words written in various colored inks on a succession of transparent acetate pages through which they interplay.

Washington artist H. Terry Braunstein, as always, is both funny and poignant in her collaged notebook entitled "Marriage," which ironically juxtaposes the dreams and facts of the formidable institution of wedlock.

Claudia De Monte, Alex Castro and Patrick Ireland are other artists with Washington connections whose work is included.

The big problem with this show, apart from the fact that it includes some second-rate examples, is the fact that many of the books are, of necessity, encased in glass and cannot be handled or fully appreciated. It is therefore the book-objects - the visual one-liners - that came across best because they are, in fact, sculpture that can be understood by mere looking.

Barton Benes' "Stamp Book," for example, is a book which has been punningly transformed into a large rubber stamp - funny, but not nearly so funny or profound as much of his other work. Suzanne Lacy's old book wrapped in an ace bandage is appropriately, if not very profoundly, entitled "Falling Apart."

Summing up such a such is like trying to review all the books in a library. The show must be browsed through with an open mind, and personal favorites explored. The rewards, however, are more than sufficient to warrant a long visit.

The book format also plays a role in the work of Andy Plioplys, Washington physician-turned-artist, who is concurrently making his solo debut at WPA. Plioplys is showing one book called "Meaning," wherein the word "meaning" emerges and recedes slowly over dozens of pages. An audio version of the same idea - if you could call it that - haunts the galleries with sound.

More importantly, Plioplys is showing sculpture in the format of mirrored books - all smashed in random patterns, or sunk into boxes in more purposeful patterns, always playing with light and dark and the notion of entrapment. At their best, they do evoke drama from minimal means, though the range is rather narrow, at least for now.

While you are in the neighborhood, the Museum of Temporary Art across the street from WPA at 1206 G St. NW has placed on view a two-year accumulation of correspondence art - collages of various sorts designed to go through the mails, yet another nontraditional format for visual artists that has been explored widely in recent years.

The show was not installed in time to be reviewed, but given the 5-foot long, handmade press release sent out (a new record) and the lure of reading other people's mail, the show seems worth a look.

Jack Rasmussen, who so successfully ran the WPA's art program over the past few years, has now opened a gallery of his own one Metro stop away, at Judiciary Square, in a commodious space at 4th and H Streets NW, former home of a school of beauty culture.

Rasmussen has built something of an outpost here - an art mission from which he will no doubt minister to the thousands of lawyers who inhabit the judicial complex nearby, not to mention the General Accounting Office across the street. Let it suffice to say Rasmussen has fertile territory to till.

The premiere show features new paintings by the painterly Reginald Pollack, whom Rasmussen came to admire when he organized the artist's first major Washington show at WPA two years ago. Pollack has continued to turn out, at a prodigious rate, his swirling, otherworldly images - Bosch-like, but set in heaven rather than hell, and filled with hope and exuberance rather than the threat of damnation.

He also continues to work on Marlite, a slippery-surfaced plastic that unleashes even further - and occassionally to excess - the impassioned, color-laden brush-stroking of which he is such a master.

For this viewer, it is in the more contained smaller works where Pollack best succeeds in organizing and communicating his almost unbearable vitality, though his work is so personal that it can only be judged as such. Meanwhile, he continues to pursue his experiments on the interface of art and technology with one fine video tape which reveals further his seemingly endless and searching imagination.

The 3-year-old Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Washington's belated answer to New York City's High School of Music and Art, has now opened an art gallery devoted to inspiring its students as well as the public at large.

It has a long way to go before enough lighting and funds are available, but meanwhile, the sheer determination of a staff willing to haul and hang works of art on their own time have brought forth a fine small show called "Contextures," lent by Just ABove Midtown, Inc. This is a New York gallery that has introduced several first-rate, black-American artists to the Manhattan scene.

Books - this time "Wood Books" opened out into wall-hung constructions by Randy Williams - introduce the show, which concentrates on the inventive use of found, highly textured materials. Pheasant feathers and dryer lint, for example, are the sole subject matter of Wendy Ward Ehler's poetic pieces; hair swept up from 20 Harlem barber shops occupies David Hammonds.

One of the most impressive talents here is that of Houston Conwill, who makes darkly mysterious wall hangings from roplex and latex into which found objects with African references have been impressed for the purpose of storytelling by evocation.

The Ellington School, incidentally, is also currently showing work by its own visual arts students at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It is one of many cooperative projects to draw upon the cultural resources of this city, including the Arena Stage, Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra. With more programs like this, plus community support, the Ellington School could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to education in the District of Columbia.