"The time has come-haul away," said Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pulleys strained and what looked like a giant pale blue bedsheet was yanked away by wires. Nearly 2,000 scientists and their friends gazed curiously, waiting in yesterday's glorious sunshine for a statue to appear.

The curtain rose on Robert Berks' much-criticized, $1.6 million sculpture of Albert Einstein.

There sat, or rather lolled, a 7,000-pound bronze Einstein on white marble steps. At his feet was a floor of polished black granite on which a star map of 3,000 stainless steel studs replicated the constellations. Einstein, 12 feet high in his reclining position, is 21 feet from craggy head to his feet-one of which is casually turned on its side.

Art critics had been fulminating for months in advance-often in the most negative terms-about Berks' creation. Until now, the sculptor was best known for his mammoth bust of John F. Kennedy at the Kennedy Center. Berks' way of slapping on globs of clay has been tagged the "chewing gum surface" style. And many considered the Einstein statue gargantuan excess for a genius as modest as he was brilliant. Einstein found pomp and pomposity an embarrassment, and once enduring long-winded dinner speeches at the venerable Academy of Sciences, Einstein leaned over to a tablemate and whispered, "I have just got a new theory of eternity."

But yesterday's guests responded with enthusiasm-and unabashed relief.

"I must admit I was really worried in advance," said Donald F. Hornig, former science adviser to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. After racing over to give Berks a hug, Hornig said, "But I'm really very pleased. This setting will hold it," referring to the tall encircling trees in the garden of the National Academy of Sciences on the corner of 21st and Constitution, and looking across to the Lincoln Memorial.

Charles Townes, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964 and developed the laser beam, smiled on the statue. "It's very gentle-as was Einstein. This overscale business is a misconception. It you put it in a small space it's overpowering. In this setting, it is properly scaled."

With him was H. Guyford Stever, former director of the National Science Foundation and a former adviser to President Gerald For.d "I still think it's good. When all the short-term things are gone, it will stand as a great memorial to science. And he has captured the sensitivity of Einstein's face and his eyes have a searching look."

A woman murmured that (his face looks so vulnerable." Mrs. Hans Einstein, the widow of Einstein's son, said of the sculpture, "It probably means more to me than anyone else, but I don't see it from the artistic point of view. I see it as a symbol for science, and science could use some good publicity these days." A professor of neurochemistry at the University of California Medical Center, Mrs. Einstein said she hoped the statue would inspire talented students.

Berks, never at a loss for words when it comes to defending his works, said the "bubble gum school" was a "smart-aleck remark" of art critics. "Everybody loves my work."

His rough surface style, he said, "gives you the essence of life and movement. Now about the bubble gum. I needed a clay that would not freeze up and get hard and yet not get too soft. The only way I can make clay is with the same machine that makes bubble gum."

Berks said did not intend to create a formidable statue. "I wanted some kid to stand in front of it and say 'He was a man . What he did, I can do.'"

Berks first did a bust of Einstein in 1953. "I was 31 and it changed my life," he said. "I spent two days with him and I spent all these years dreaming I would do his statue. My dream is fulfilled. When I asked Einstein why he allowed me to spend so much time, he said he realized the world needed heroes and it was much better that it be a man like him than someone like Hitler or Mussolini."

Berks subsequently tried for years to interest some group in a statue of Einstein. Finally, through the intervention of Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey, Berks was put in contact with the National Academy of Science. His fee: $350,000. In addition his staff, equipment and materials cost another $667,760.

The Academy borrowed $1 million from a local bank, then tapped corporations and the science community-from IBM to the American Physical Society. They also dunned individual Academy members, many present yesterday, and $800,000 of the total now has been met.

A reception after the unveiling was filled with scientific heavyweights, and Nobel Prize-winners were common as canapes. Some of the members present were Herbert Friedman, a pioneer in X-ray astronomy; Preston Cloud, known as "the geologist's geologist" and author of "Resources and Man"; Carl Djerassi, principal developer of the birth control pill; Vincent Dole, developer of Methadone; Paul Doty, a leader in the arms-control field; Donald S. Fredrickson, director of National Institutes of Health; and M. L. Goldberger, president of California Institute of Technology.

There were noted futurists like Harrison Brown and Clement L. Markert, a specialist in cattle cloning and Arno A. Penzias, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978, anf F. Sherwood Rowland, who discovered the effect of aerosols on the ozone layer.

But what might have pleased Einstein-who once said that his "new courage to face life cheerfully" came from "kindness, beauty and truth"-were the tourists who stopped to watch. There were about 100 of them - a man holding a motorcycle helmet, a woman with a camera, teenagers in blue jeans, children who peered through the fence. Later they will be able to get a closer look and can try to figure out which steel studs represent which stars.

One 8-year-old boy did get close yesterday and seemed quite comfortable sprawled on Einstein's knee. Stevie Briggs, from Winona, Minn., had come to town for his uncle's wedding. He got inside because a television crew thought a freckle-faced kid like Stevie would be just the ticket.

And so Stevie followed the instructions of the "Good Morning America" camerman who asked him to look at the top of Einstein's head. Asked who the statue represented, Stevie said, "Einstein." Asked what he knew about the scientist, Stevie answered, "not much."

And whom does Stevie like? "Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader." CAPTION: Picture, Mrs. Hans Einstein and sculptor Robert Berks with Albert Einstein statue; by Margaret Thomas-The Washington Post.