"Wow," said Samuel C. Miller, the director of the Newark (N.J.) Museum.

He and some 700 other exhibition-goers were getting their first look last night at the Hirshhorn Museum's exhibit of two rediscovered aviation mural panels painted by Arshile Gorky for the Newark Airport.

What made the panels ("Mechanics of Flying" and "Aerial Map") look even better in their rather spectacular, if temporary, setting was the fact that it may well be Gorky who winds up posthumously putting Newark on the cultural map after all these years.

He put it on his abstract "Aerial Map" more than 30 years ago when he created his now-famous aviation mural for the country's first commercial airport with its then one-of-a-kind art deco building. On Gorky's map, the one black dot that is bigger than the others is, naturally, Newark.

"Orginally, the mural was supposed to go to New York, but Mayor La Guardia wasn't ready for it," said Saul Wendgrat, director of art programs for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "Newark was ready, and the art community there went to bat for it."

How the panels got to the Hirshhorn is part of the exhibition story. Where they'll eventually find a permanent home is quite another.

Since Gorky was working for the WPA when he painted them, ownership rested with the General Services Administration. Recently, it transferred custody to the Port Authority, raising hopes in Newark art circles that the museum might one day house them.

"Our feeling is that if they could go back to the airport and be properly displayed, that's where they should be," said Wendgrat. "But we feel they should be at Newark."

Miller politely disagreed with the first part of Wendgrat's statement but not the second.

"They were lost once," he said, "and we don't want to lose them again."

Ruth Bowman, the art historian whose "detective" work led to rediscovery of the panels, under layers of paint in the airport, said she felt the exhibition finally put Gorky in his "rightful" place, a kind of "bittersweet ending" after his suicide in 1948. He was 44. Another gratifying element was seeing Newark emerge from its sterotyped image of nowheresville.

"The headline stuff for Newark has been so grim. Nobody realizes it's a cultural city," Bowman said.

Sam Miller called the exhibition "a catalyst" and Saul Wendgrat said it was "an adventure because every time I see the panels in another exhibition I find new Gorkys I haven't seen before."

There were 29 other Gorkys from the Hirshhorn's collection on display, many of which Joseph Hirshhorn said he bought one morning from Gorky for $30 a piece. Hirshhorn first met Gorky in 1939 in a New York automat.

"He was a darling, sweet, gentle man who was very poor. I used to buy him breakfast," said Hirshhorn, adding that a couple of years ago he bought a Gorky from Parke-Bernet. "It cost me $136,000."