CONSIDER, for a moment, three Corcoran Biennial Exhibitions of Contemporary American Painting -- those of 1907, 1971 and 1979.

The first of these was vast, chaotic, Frenchified. Power to the people, or, at least, to the painters, was a message of the next. The third -- which opens here next week -- will, despite the new work in it, have a conservative and classical retrospective mood. Corcoran Biennials are reflections of their time.

The very first Biennial, that of 1907, was a sort of Yankee version of the juried French salons. It was huge and hugely popular. President Roosevelt came to see it; so did 62,696 others. There were 288 painters in that vast, inclusive show.

Only 22 were represented in the Corcoran Biennial that Walter Hopps arranged in 1971. He did not pick them all. Some curators are tyrants, but autocratic gestures were in those days out of fashion, and Hopps chose to relinquish half his curatorial clout to the artists in his show. Each of the 11 he selected to participate in turn picked a peer.

This year's Corcoran Biennial, in contrast, will appear authoritative, classical, rigorously exclusive. Countless are the painters now working in America -- but only five will show.

None is under 50. All are famous. Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg -- the participating painters selected by curator Jane Livingston -- are acknowledged as Old Masters of post-war New York art.

Two years ago, four years ago and for many years before that Corcoran Biennials were, though not exclusively, surveys of fresh talent. Some pictures by big names were included in those shows, but they seemed to have been added for contrast and for balance.

All of the five artists in this year's exhibition have displayed their work in previous Biennials -- de Kooning in 1951, 1961, 1963 and 1975; Johns in 1967; Kelly in 1963; Lichtenstein in 1965 and 1971, and Rauschenberg in 1959, 1963 and 1965. But these artists and their peers were usually outnumbered by others far less well known.

The curators responsible, Jane Livingston among them, who traveled round the country from studio to studio, sought the unfamiliar. They were scouting for the future. This year's show, in contrast, will use the present as a prism through which to view the past.

A tide may well have turned. "How on earth is anyone going to draw inspiration from the Frture?" asked the incomparable Max Beerbohm half a century ago. "Let us spell it with a capital letter by all means. But don't let us expect it to give us anything in return. It can't, poor thing, for the very good reason that it doesn't yet exist... The past and the present -- these are two useful and delightful things. I am sorry, but I am afraid there is no future for the Future." For the first time in a century, those who rule the art world, not all of them, but many, are beginning to agree.

It will be difficult to view the 30 paintings in this year's small Biennial in a state of mind that is not recollective. One cannot see new work by painters as familiar as de Kooning, Kelly, Johns, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, without thinking of the early work, the scary big-toothed women, the fields of flat color, the comic strips and flags and maps that earned these men their fame.

They became "Old Masters" young. "Twenty years ago," writes Livingston in her catalogue, many of the indisputably authoritative artists in New York were in their 20s and 30s; indeed it was artists of this younger generation who, in the late 1950s, were extending the modernist tradition more definitively than their American elders... To organize an exgibition of first rank 'new American painting' at any moment between, say, 1958 and 1970 meant to include at least a dozen artists under 35." For reasons still mysterious that no longer seems the case.

The triumph of abstract expressionism made de Kooning's name a household word. Pop art did the same for Lichtenstein and Johns. But few young artists nowadays seem to surf to fame on waves of innovation. The young painters of the '70s no doubt are as gifted, as ambitious and hard-working, as those of the '50s and the early '60s; but despite their efforts, their talents and their numbers, few of them have reached the status of Art Stars. Many of them feel that the stage door has slammed shut.

It seems to be far harder now to build an art world reputation than it was, say, 10 or 20 years ago. Who are the acknowledged American Art Stars of the '70s? A few names spring to mind -- Frank Stella, Richard Estes, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Noland, Christo, Sol LeWitt -- but like the five men in this show, they began to earn their reputations before the start of the decade.

A similar situation seems to hold in Washington. There were major reputations made here in the '50s and the '60s -- among them Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis. For a while it appeared a younger generation was nipping at their heels. One thinks of Rockne Krebs, Sam Gilliam and Ed McGowin -- but those three barely made it. Few local artists since then have achieved such fame.

When Livingston decided to restrict this year's Biennial to modern art's Old Masters, she was a bit surprised at how few names came to mind. She considered Phillip Guston, Agnes Martin, Helen Frankenthaler, Warhol, but then decided no. She thought of Frank Stella, but an exhibit of his recent work will go on display at the Corcoran in April. She considered Robert Motherwell, but he was represented well in the National Gallery's East Building. "I wanted to limit the exhibition to artists who had demonstrated, over time, a profound commitment to painting at the highest level. At first I-thought of adding a few lesser figures, but instead I decided to make the exhibition maximally legible, maximally lucid. I did not want a mixed bag."

Artists, unlike athletes, need not decay with age. "Almost by definition, master painters improve as they grow older," observes Livingston. She contends the five painters in her show "are not only continuing to produce paintings in a spirit of refinement and elaboration of their own earlier achievements, but are making bodies of work which almost exceed in mastery, ambitiousness and sophistication much of their own earlier output. They are, in a word, holding their own against any possible incursion either of mimetic or iconoclastic talent from the new generation." Her show will let us see whether these five artists are worthy of such praise.

There is, as we all know, something self-perpetuating about great reputations. Are the artists in this show famous for their recent work -- or just for being famous? Roy Lichtenstein still paints paintings that knowingly discuss the history of painting, Kelly still produces handsome panels of uninflected color, Rauschenberg is still as theatrical as ever, and de Kooning, 75 now, is still an action painter -- but would they have been asked to show if they, instead, had broken completely with their past?

Americans need stars. And we tend to be comforted when things that used to shock us become pleasingly familiar. The five artists picked by Livingston for this year's Biennial were once considered radicals, but that is true no longer. We recognize them now as hard-working conservatives. The loyalty they've shown to their early innovations has reinforced their fame.

The show should be a hit. De Kooning, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Johns and Rauschenberg are expected for the opening. "Umpteen dinner parties have been planned for the opening," says Livingston. "Everyone wants a piece of the action." Grants to the Corcoran from the Cafritz Foundation, Mobil and the National Endowment for the Arts will pay the exhibition's bills. "I wish that raising money would always be as easy has it has been for this show," said Peter Marzio, the Corcoran's director. The 36th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting will open to the public on Feb. 24 and remain on view through April 8.